Olivia Jung to be honored with ’24 Janus Prize for ‘Right Before the Fall’

Olivia Jung

Olivia Jung took what began as writings left over from college assignments, expanded and interwove them, and crafted a touching personal essay that would earn the writer the 2024 Janus Prize.

Jung’s essay, “Right Before the Fall,” touches on themes of trauma, depression and sexual assault; it will be honored at 6 p.m. tonight in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor with the 2024 Chatuauqua Janus Prize Ceremony. Space is limited for this event.

The Janus Prize — named for the Roman God who looks to the past and the future — honors an emerging writers’ single work of prose for “daring formal and aesthetic innovations that upset and reorder literary conventions, historical narratives and readers’ imaginations.” Awarded annually since 2018, the prize is made possible by the support of Barbara, Hilary and Twig Branch. With the prize, Jung receives $5,000 and a $2,000 stipend for travel and lodging.

Jung wrote parts of what became the winning piece in grad school — including  reflections on a traumatizing experience she had as a child during the 1986 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, watching a woman accidentally fall from a balcony, impact broken by the crowd below her; and a thread about the Disney movie “Pollyanna.” 

“I think I connect to that story (Pollyanna), as well,” Jung said. “It’s this idea that something terrible has happened, but then people show up. Strangers and friends and family; and if they don’t show up, you show up (for yourself).”

Jung holds an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and won the Pigeon Pages Essay Contest in 2019. “Right Before the Fall” was published in Issue VII of the Hoxie Gorge Review last fall.

The 2024 Janus Prize saw a record-breaking number of submissions — more than 210 — from which 12 finalists were chosen. Week Three’s prose writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, Jimin Han, served as the guest judge for the prize this year and chose Jung’s work as the winner.

“There’s an urgency to the writing that just makes it harder to look away,” said Han. “This was something that I thought everyone really needed to read.”

Jung, who stepped away from her work a few years ago in order to focus on processing and healing from her trauma, felt that writing had taken a backseat in her life.

“To be recognized, at this level — this prestigious award — was such a beautiful reminder that I am a writer,” she said.

In 2019, Jung experienced a moment — which she explores in her essay — that made her decide to move home and focus on recovering. It was during this time that she started to expand on the fragments of writing from college, turning them into essay-length pieces. She realized that some of her pieces had very similar themes, so she started to weave together the fictional story of Pollyanna with the very real moments she lived at the 1986 Macy’s parade — confronting other traumas in the process.

“(In both stories) there’s a theme of falling and there’s a theme of trauma,” Jung said, “… the trauma we witness, the trauma we inflict, and how that’s all processed in our bodies and our psyches.”

Merging the stories helped Jung confront and process her sexual assault for the first time. 

“I think what motivates me the most in terms of writing about difficult topics, or topics that have felt really isolating for me to experience, is that I know there are other people out there who’ve been through similar things,” she said. “… These are things we don’t really talk about, like suicidal ideation. We don’t talk about sexual abuse. … The thing that motivates me to write really personal pieces is that somebody out there … is going to read it and see themselves. Then, maybe, that will help them put words to their own experience, or at the very least, help them feel like they’re not alone in it.”

Tags : Barbara BranchChatuauqua Janus Prize CeremonyHilary BranchJanus Prizeliterary artsOlivia JungRight Before the FallTwig Branch

The author Sabine Obermoller

Leave a Response