Twelve New Members Elected to TIL

Members of the Texas Institute of Letters have overwhelmingly approved twelve new writers to the TIL, a distinguished honor society established in 1936 to celebrate Texas literature and recognize distinctive literary achievement.

The TIL’s elected membership consists of the state’s most recognized and serious writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, songwriting, and scholarship. The membership includes winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prizes in drama, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as prizes awarded by PEN, and dozens of other regional and national award and grant-giving institutions.

The 2024 honorees are Varsha Bajaj, Rebecca Balcárcel, Cecilia Ballí, Michael Bracken, Laeken Zea Kemp, Mary Margaret McAllen, Matt Mendez, Leslie Jill Patterson, Rudy Ruiz, Ruth J. Simmons, Natalia Treviño, and Lucinda Williams.

Introducing TIL’s New Members

Varsha Bajaj

Originally from India, she now lives in Houston and is an active member of the Texas children’s literature community. Her picture books include This is Our Baby, Born Today, and The Home Builders, which was selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. She also wrote the novels, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood and Count Me In, which tackles a hate crime in Texas and became a finalist for the Global Read Aloud program. The New York Times listed it as a recommended title for reading to resist anti-Asian hate. Another novel, Thirst, shows the human impacts of inequality in Mumbai, India, and was an instant

New York Times bestseller. Most recently, Varsha has penned a novel to accompany Kavi, the first Indian American Girl Doll.

Rebecca Balcárcel

Writing from the Dallas-Ft. Worth region, she is the author of The Other Half of Happy and Shine On, Luz Véliz, both winners of TIL’s Deirdre Siobhan FlynnBass Award for Best Middle Grade Book. Her novels have been praised with starred reviews by the School Library Journal and Kirkus. Among her many accolades for Shine On, Luz Véliz is an award from the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute for portraying a girl defying stereotypes and excelling in STEM and an honor from TLA by being listed as one of the books for SPOT (Spirit of Texas Reading Program). Most recently, she is editor of Boundless, an anthology celebrating multicultural and multiracial identities.

Cecilia Ballí

Her hometown is Brownsville, and she is the first Latina or Latino writer for Texas Monthly. She has also published stories in The New York Times MagazineHarper’s Magazine, and Columbia Journalism Review. She began her journalism career in high school by writing for The Brownsville Herald and later worked as an education reporter for the San Antonio Express News. She has won many fellowships and residencies such as the Lannan Foundation Writer’s Residency, the Nation Institute Writing Residency, and the Dobie Paisano Writer’s Residency. Her current project is a book about mariachis, an expansion of a piece she published in The New York Times Magazine, “A Championship Season in Mariachi Country.”

Michael Bracken

Writing from Waco, he has written novels and short stories in multiple genres. He also is the editor of two publications, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Texas Gardener. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing from Baylor University and in June 2021 was named a Prominent Alumnus for his accomplishments as an award-winning mystery writer. Some of his books include All White GirlsBad GirlsDeadly CampaignPsi CopsTequila Sunrise, and Yesterday in Blood and Bone. His work has been selected for several of the Best American Mystery Stories anthologies. He has received three Derringer Awards for short fiction, and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction.

Laekan Zea Kemp

Originally from Lubbock and now in Leander, she has contributed to the writing community by creating a course, Debut Author Boot Camp; starting The Paper Trail podcast alongside several other authors; and supporting the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. Her books have received several starred reviews, and her novel, Somewhere Between Bitter And Sweet, was a Pura Belpre honor book and named the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the Young Adult Library Services Association. Other YA titles include Heartbreak Symphony and An Appetite for Miracles. She is also author of the middle grade Omega Morales series and of the picture book, A Crown for Corina.

Mary Margaret McAllen

From San Antonio, she is Director of Humanities at the Witte Museum and former President of the State Historical Association. Her present three books include the award-winning and best-selling I Would Rather Sleep in TexasA Brave Boy and a Good Soldier: John C. C. Hill and the Texas Expedition to Mier; and Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico. She has written book introductions, contributed to anthologies, been a guest on the PBS series History Detectives, and contributed to Henry Louis Gate’s Faces of America.

Matt Mendez

Born in El Paso, he is a writer of both short fiction and novels. His first collection, Twitching Heart, included stories published in Alligator JuniperCutthroatHuizachePALABRAPANK, and The Literary Review. His novels are Barely Missing Everything and its follow-up, The Broke HeartsBarely Missing Everything was named a best book of 2019 by Kirkus, Book of the Year by Latina Book Club, and Best Read of 2019 by Military Spouse Book Review. Critics have praised his work for its “deep sense of place and realistic dialogue, characters who are vivid and fallible . . . holding onto hope and friendship in the midst of alcoholism, poverty, prejudice, and despair.” He currently lives in Tucson.

Leslie Jill Patterson

A native-born Texan who now lives in Lubbock, she is a prolific author of essays, interviews, and short stories featured in publications such as Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Texas Monthly, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Nimrod, and Colorado Review. She founded Iron Horse Literary Review in 1999 and continues to serve as Editor-in-Chief. She also served as a copy-editor for Creative Nonfiction for fifteen years. She is winner of Boons Foundation Human Rights Fellowship; Everett Southwest Literary Award; Kimmel-Harding Nelon Center Residency; Richard J. Margolis Award for Social Justice Writing; Time and Place Prize in France; and a Writers League of Texas Creative Nonfiction Fellowship.

Rudy Ruiz

He is the author of Valley of Shadows, winner of TIL’s Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction and a New York Times Paperback Row Selection. His novel, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez, won two International Latino Book Awards, including Best Latino Focused Fiction Book. His short stories have appeared in journals including the Notre Dame Review and The Ninth Letter, received the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, and been selected twice as finalists for TIL’s Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story. His non-fiction writing includes essays, columns for CNN, and research studies in collaboration with Yale University and University of Washington. His next novel, The Border Between Us, will be released in September 2024. Born in Brownsville, he now lives in San Antonio.

Ruth J. Simmons

Born in Grapeland, she is the first African American president of an Ivy League Institution, Brown University. She went on to become president of Smith College, Vice Provost of Princeton, advisor to president of Harvard, and president of Prairie View University. Her memoir, Up Home, became a bestseller. About her book, The New York Times, which named it as an Editor’s Choice title, says, “Simmon’s evocative account of her remarkable trajectory from Jim Crow Texas, where she was the youngest of twelve children in a sharecropping family, to the presidencies of Smith College and Brown University shines with tenderness and dignity.” Dr. Simmons is currently President’s Distinguished Fellow at Rice University where a one-million-dollar scholarship has been created in her honor.

Natalia Treviño

Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño authored VirginX and Lavando La Dirty Laundry, which has been translated into Albanian and Macedonian. She works as a professor and her awards include the Alfredo Cisneros de Moral Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the Menada Literary Award. Her poetry appears in a variety of journals including BordersensesAcentos Review, Plume, and Xóchitl Cuicatl: Floricanto Cien años de poesía chicana/Latinx. Her prose appears in Mirrors Beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers, and most recently in Latinx Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry. Her third book of poetry is forthcoming.

Lucinda Williams

She is a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter with ties to Austin where she recorded several live albums. She has had a strong and influential presence on the Texas music scene, delivering the keynote address at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin and appearing on “Austin City Limits” numerous times. She’s been inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. She has an extensive discography which includes Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, and The Ghosts of Highway 20. She recently published her memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.

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