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Multiple awards grace career of RCC-RILL writing instructor

Kenna-GStudents of the literature and writing classes that Gail Wilson Kenna has taught since 2005 for the Rappahannock Community College Educational Foundation’s Rappahannock Institute for Lifelong Learning (RILL) already know that Kenna has garnered many awards for her work in several literary genres. The latest of these awards recognize two submissions she made to the annual “Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition,” which attracts entries in thirteen categories from writers all over the world.

The name of this competition refers to a quotation from the poet John Keats: “Some say the world is a vale of tears, I say it is a place of soul-making.” Its purpose is “to encourage, acknowledge, and award exceptional written works; and we particularly appreciate creative struggles and efforts that reach and rise.”

Kenna’s “One Face from the Shadow of Millions” won second place in the nonfiction Tara L. Masih Intercultural Essay prize category for 2013. The category calls for essays dealing with culture, race, and a sense of place, within the microcosm of self-identity or the larger environment of family, society, and world. Kenna’s essay tells the story of a Mexican man, a student of hers in an “English as a Second Language” class, who drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to save another Mexican. “He was returning here from Mexico to his full-time employment in the Northern Neck,” says Kenna. “He had twice entered the United States legally, and over-stayed his second visa, but returned home because he had not been there for three years.” Kenna wrote the piece in response to President Obama’s address, delivered in the autumn of 2013, about the decades-long impasse regarding immigration legislation.

Winning the second-place award “wasn’t the best news,” Kenna admits, “as I won first in the ‘Intercultural’ category last year [with an essay about teaching Muslims in Malaysia]. But the honorable mention in the short story category pleased me enormously.” Kenna describes this entry as “a quiet story,” whose Spanish title, “Dulce y Amargo a la Vez,” translates as “Bittersweet.” Stories submitted in this category are required to be well-crafted, original, and compelling, with vivid characters and convincing dialogue, and demonstrating mastery of and love for the English language. “Dulce y Amargo a la Vez” is set in Caracas, Venezuela, and tells the story of a soldier who cares for the horse ridden by an American girl. It is an important part of the background story for a novel of Kenna’s, “Of Love and Circumstance,” which has not yet been published.

In addition to the cash prizes for first, second, and third places in the “Soul-Making” competition, all winners and honorable mentions are invited to read excerpts from their work at the Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Main Public Library Civic Center, on March 30. Kenna has chosen to read from her intercultural essay, and will use her four-minute time allowance to explore a metaphor comparing the river of language to the actual river where her student, “this wonderful man,” drowned. The event will be filmed and available on YouTube. “The winners are from everywhere in the United States,” notes Kenna.

A writer and retired university professor, Kenna has lived and taught in six countries, and has recently completed her fourth book. One of the credits of which she is proudest is having been accepted no less than three times to participate in the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. “It’s a real honor to be accepted to the Bread Loaf!” she says; only 170 students are chosen to attend the conference each year, out of about 1500 applicants. Her RILL students benefit as much as herself from the experience, since she uses the ideas that she obtains there to help teach her courses.

An opportunity to study with this accomplished writer will occur in April, when RILL sponsors her three-session course on “The Enduring Genius of Flannery O’Connor”—a subject of particular interest to Kenna, as that author formed part of the basis for her master’s thesis. Up until now, Kenna has taught only in the Northern Neck, but for this course she will initiate a Middle Peninsula location: at the Deltaville branch of the Middlesex County Library, beginning April 8. She will teach the same course at RCC’s Kilmarnock Center, beginning April 10.

For more information on Gail Kenna’s RILL courses, please call Sharon Drotleff at RCC’s Educational Foundation office (804-333-6707, or toll-free at 877-722-3679), or e-mail her at

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