Alumnus Credits Heritage and UH for Creative Writing Fellowship

Holnes is the first Panamanian-American to receive the fellowship

Darrel Alejandro Holnes standing infront a light gray wall Photo credit: Thomas Kuhn

It may seem as if Darrel Alejandro Holnes, who received his Bachelor of Arts from UH at just 20 years of age, was destined to receive a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowship. Even before his college career began, he possessed a love for the written and spoken word.

“I fell in love with writing when I fell in love with language,” Holnes said. “As a child, I heard English, Spanish, French, Creole, and West Indian or Jamaican Patois; it was a feast for my ears. So, naturally, when I began to write, it was to bring to life the rich and complex world of words spoken by my family and friends."

Through its Creative Writing Fellowships, which total $25,000 each, the NEA gives writers the time, space, and resources needed to spark creativity. Holnes was one of just 35 writers selected from a pool of nearly 1,700 applicants, emerging victorious from a highly competitive, anonymous process that judged artists solely on the merits of their submitted work.

“This fellowship is a tremendous honor for me and for my family,” Holnes said. “Most of my writing is about growing up in Panama and my early experiences in the United States as a Panamanian-American, so [my family] is thrilled. Houston is the first city I came to when I moved to the United States, so I'll continue writing about this great city as well.”

Holnes’ poetry has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Callaloo, and other publications. He cites UH as a central influence on his academic and artistic growth.

“The university’s commitment to the inclusion of all members of our diverse student body helps alumni go on to achieve great things,” said Paula Myrick Short, UH provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Darrel Alejandro Holnes is a world-renowned poet, professor, playwright, and researcher. I am proud to count him among the distinguished alumni of our university.”

When Holnes graduated from the University of Houston in 2008, he left a long-lasting legacy in the Department of English and beyond. His award has garnered attention from leaders throughout the campus community.

“I am delighted by the news of Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ NEA Fellowship,” said Dr. Antonio D. Tillis, dean of the UH College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and M.D. Anderson Professor of Hispanic Studies. “He is a singular talent, able to craft deeply personal poems, plays, and prose packed with experiences of the classical migration narrative. Holnes is a living testament to the wonders that can happen when natural creative ability is sharpened with a rigorous education in the artistry of creative literary production.”

“UH was such a defining part of my life,” Holnes said. “It was a great equalizer, helping students from all economic backgrounds attain an education. I had the opportunity to work with great poets, who advised my undergraduate creative writing thesis and supported my applications to get my MFA in creative writing. I'm grateful for our time together because it allowed me to become one of the youngest people ever accepted into one of the top-ranked creative writing programs in the nation.”

On the heels of his big win, Holnes has set his sights on ambitious new projects that draw from his family’s experiences in Panama and the United States.

“This NEA fellowship will support me in writing poems and assembling them into a manuscript, “said Holnes. “I'm also working on a few plays, so I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to continue documenting and honoring Panama's history with the U.S. and my own family's journeys to and from this country.”