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Kate Zambreno Earns a Guggenheim

Award-winning writer attended Medill and trained as a journalist — then she ventured into experimental fiction.

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Image: Illustration: Anja Slibar

By Diana Babineau
Fall 2021

Kate Zambreno ’99 considers herself a late bloomer.

She began her career as a journalist with Chicago alt-weeklies before delving into more experimental fiction, pushing the boundaries of traditional forms.

“Much of my writing goes past fact into the realm of fiction,” says Zambreno. The author of eight books, she is now nationally recognized for writing that “troubles genre,” as she puts it.

Her 2020 novel, Drifts, for instance, is composed of fragmented, diaristic entries that lead the reader to feel almost as if they are delving into Zambreno’s own memoir. She also describes her most recent book, To Write As If Already Dead (2021), as one that continues “thinking through this strange collision between fiction and nonfiction” while exploring themes of bodies, pandemics, ethics and friendship.

In April, Zambreno, who currently teaches nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, was named a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction.

Even as she has forayed into experimental forms of writing, Zambreno says her training at what was then the Medill School of Journalism was undoubtedly a formative experience. “Research, fact-checking, interviewing — all of those are really important aspects that I learned training as a journalist, and that I still value in my work,” she says. “A lot of my discipline as a writer and my ability to be very focused on a research project or writing deadline was formed in fire from Medill.”

When it comes to offering words of encouragement to aspiring writers, Zambreno says you don’t have to have it all figured out early on, and you certainly don’t have to be a young prodigy.

“There’s this [belief] that you have to be so excellent in college to be successful later in life. And when I look back at stuff I wrote in college … all I really had was the drive and desire,” she says. “[But] it’s not about who’s first or most prodigious. It’s ultimately about carving out a life for yourself that allows you to continue [writing].”

Ultimately, Zambreno says the key to good writing is a willingness to revise. “I always tell writers, if you work on something long enough, and if you’re willing to kind of fail at it, tear it up and keep writing it, you’re eventually going to get writing that you’re happy with.”

During her fellowship, Zambreno will continue working on The Missing Person, an essay collection forthcoming from Riverhead, and she hopes to do a reading in Chicago in the near future.

Diana Babineau is writer and editor for the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

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