The Pearl S. Buck Writing Contest is a statewide competition sponsored by West Virginia University with prizes for high school, undergraduate and graduate student writers. In honor of Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck, who was born in West Virginia and raised in China, the contest guidelines encourage writers to submit fiction or nonfiction pieces which express appreciation for differing cultures, including but not limited to Appalachia and China. Writing that promotes social justice and features women’s perspectives is also encouraged.
The winner in the graduate student category for 2016 and recipient of the accompanying one thousand dollar award is Chad Cowell, a Morgantown native who is currently pursuing his master’s degree in secondary education from the College of Education and Human Services.
His prize-winning short story, titled “The Diner,” follows a waitress named Joanna in her conversations with Ying, a Chinese native who has come to America to reunite with her daughter after 31 years apart.
In the story, Ying tells Joanna about how she was forced to give up her daughter for adoption three decades earlier due to China’s One-Child Policy, a population control effort enforced by the Chinese government from 1978 to 2015. Despite facing obstacles including poverty and social constraints, Ying never loses her determination to find the daughter who was taken from her. Her search leads her to America, 31 years later, where her daughter is living with a child of her own.
Cowell said that, after reading about the contest’s themes, the idea for the story simply fell into his lap. “So many people have been affected by China’s one-child policy that the characters were already waiting,” Cowell said. “The drama was already there. I just needed to pick up the pieces and put it into a story.”
Like his character Ying and Pearl S. Buck herself, Cowell is no stranger to crossing oceans. Cowell spent nine years teaching English as a Second Language in South Korea after graduating from Pennsylvania State University. His experience there inspired him to pursue his master’s here at WVU.
“I decided that inspiring future generations to fall in love with literature was something that I’d be willing to work for,” Cowell said.
Cowell’s reverence for literature is echoed in “The Diner” when Joanna asks Ying about the book she is reading, which happens to be Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. When Joanna admits that she doesn’t have much time to read, Ying replies, “Every young woman should read. How else are you going to learn about what’s out there?”
At the end of “The Diner,” Joanna is so inspired by Ying’s journey that she decides to reconnect with her own mother, despite not having spoken to her for four years due to disagreements. According to Cowell, the importance of family is the story’s prevailing theme, and his own family is a major source of inspiration for him. In fact, it was his wife’s confidence in his writing ability that ultimately convinced him to enter the contest.
“Any time outside of graduate studies and substitute teaching is spent with my family,” Cowell said.
For more information on the Pearl S. Buck Writing Contest, visit http://research.wvu.edu/students/pearl-s-buck-writing-contest.