2020-2021 Writers House Residents

Rose Himber Howse — Asheville, North Carolina

Rose Himber Howse is an essayist and fiction writer from North Carolina. She’s a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she served as fiction editor of The Greensboro Review. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Carolina Quarterly, Sonora Review, YES! Magazine, and elsewhere.

Much of Rose’s writing is informed by her independent research on the history and culture of marginalized communities in the Southern Appalachians, where she was born and raised. She is currently at work on a novel and a group of essays. Both explore questions of queer identity in the context of the American South. 

❝ Literary community has been absolutely instrumental in my writing life thus far, yet it isn't always easy to find outside of academic institutions. I'm so thrilled to benefit from the creative energy of the house and of the broader literary tradition in Pittsburgh. ❞

DEBORAH ANNE McNEELY was a writer, an artist, and an actress who paid her bills by waitressing. She was not famous. She was never published — unless you count the Park Slope Coop’s Linewaiter’s Gazette — but she did sell her artwork and spent her teens and twenties on the stage. Deborah studied acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York and with David Mamet and William H. Macy at the St. Nicholas Theater Company. Born in Bloomington, Illinois, Deborah—Debbie to her family—lived in New York City in her twenties, thirties, and forties with departures to return to her home state of Illinois, and to live in New Orleans, Louisiana; Eugene, Oregon; Yelm and Olympia, Washington; Mineral, Virginia; and Paia, Maui, Hawaii. She maintained a creative practice throughout her life, but she struggled, like nearly all creatives, to live off of her art.

“In the year's I've been working on my aunt's story,” says Writers House Pittsburgh’s Co-Founder Maggie Messitt, “I’ve come to recognize one major theme that runs through her adult life: the stress of housing instability and the creative freedom that comes with inexpensive or free housing, even if only temporary. Furthermore, she had a deep desire to purchase a home or land and fill it with creatives. She wanted something that could anchor her. She sought security and creativity. With this, she believed she'd thrive.” 

“But,” Messitt continues, “she was never able to have this. And, as the world faces COVID-19, I am very aware that she would be unemployed right now and struggling to keep a roof over her head.” 

It is with this in mind, that the Writers House was founded and, it is with the spirit of Debbie’s desire for creative community and home that we name Rose Himber Howse the Deborah Anne McNeely Writer-in-Residence. 

Sandra Ang Osborn — Salt Lake City, Utah

Sandra Ang Osborn is a Chinese-Mexican American writer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. She has had a career in healthcare as a scientist, and now is an emerging writer and MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at University of Utah. Her essays are emotional explorations of loss, home and life, migration, and human connection. Founder of the Peregrine House Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization focused on diverse, international children’s literature, she is committed to helping families access high-quality literature for children and young adults.

Sandra’s work explores the idea of home: is it found in the presence of those we love, or as a fixed geography? After the tragic loss of her sons, Sandra’s writing is part-memoir, part-grief love-letter to the boys and the world that now misses them, chronicling bereavement, senselessness, the difficulty of articulating loss, and the possibility of rekindling heartspace and homespace.

❝ Few experiences in life demand that we pause and recalibrate the way the death of a loved one does. I am so grateful for the opportunity Writers House Pittsburgh offers: housing stability and a community at a time when I don’t want to be alone but need different surroundings, a place where I can pause, write, and regain my breath. ❞

JAMES TOLAN was a professor in the BMCC English department from 2003-2017.  But first and foremost, he was a poet.  As a professor, he challenged his students to take their learning into the city, offering them opportunities to see working poets and writers at places like The Cornelia Street Café, Poets House and the Nuyorican Poets Café. His final assignments often gave students the chance to submit their own poems and stories for credit since it was by using what he referred to as his own "corny love poems" to try to get college credit that led him into his life as a poet.  He published a collection of poems, Mass of the Forgotten, in 2013, and his posthumous collection Filched appeared in 2018.  He was also the author of three chapbooks, including Red Walls and Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning, and he was co-editor of the anthology New America:  Contemporary Literature for a Changing Society  

James—Jim, off the page—wasn’t from and never lived in Pittsburgh, but his first collection of poetry and the anthology he edited with his wife, Holly Messitt, were published by Autumn House Press, an independent publisher based in the Garfield neighborhood. Additionally, Jim’s advisor and friend from his years at University of Louisiana—Lafayette, Sheryl St. Germain, is a long-time resident of this city and the former Director of Creative Writing at Chatham University. Writers House Pittsburgh Co-Founder Maggie Messitt, had the privilege of getting to know and love Jim through her cousin, his wife, Holly. It’s with Jim’s spirit of community building, generosity, and building (as well as embracing) second chances and new chapters in life that we name Sandra Ang Osborn, the James Tolan Writer-in-Residence for 2020-2021.

Alona Williams — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Alona Williams is a poet and Pittsburgh-native. She is a 2020 graduate of Chatham University where she earned a BFA in Creative Writing with a Minor in Music. She participated in the Winter Tangerine’s 2018 workshop, and has been published (or has work forthcoming) in 1839 Magazine, The Minor Bird, MoonStone Arts Center’s Philadelphia Says: Resisting Arrest, and Femme Literati: Mixtape. She is a contributing author in two anthologies, the forthcoming Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook and the recently released Tenderness – a Literary Anthology and Book of Spells: Evidence. 

In 2016, as Alona witnessed gentrification swallowing her community and the displacement of Penn Plaza residents, she started a series of poems called "Those Who Don't Know." Titled after a Sandra Cisneros poem, the series focuses on this gentrification and Alona’s personal processing of it. She started the series at the age of 19 and, now, at 23, she is ready to return to and expand upon this collection. Deeply connected to murals, some that remain and others that have disappeared, Alona not only sees this work culminating into a book, but also an online gallery. 

❝ The Writers House residency is a wonderful miracle that I think has the potential to expand and sustain. Home and community are not things I take lightly. I plan on using this very special time together as both a personal and community foundation builder; and help create a sustainable community that has the capacity to support writers whose stories and work are often ignored. ❞ 

In the coming year, Alona will also teach in the Words Without Walls program, facilitating classes through their “Spreading the Word” series, focused on abolition, abundance, and resiliency.

WORDS WITHOUT WALLS is a creative writing program that facilitates writing groups in jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers. Since 2009, Chatham University has sponsored the program, which has served writers at Allegheny County Jail, State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh, Sojourner House, and Veteran’s Place, among others. In addition to creative writing classes, Words Without Walls sponsors a visiting writers series, publishes chapbooks, and hosts the Maenad Fellowship Program, a writing fellowship for women in recovery from substance abuse disorders.

“We’re thrilled to have Alona Williams join the Words Without Walls teaching team,” says co-founder Sarah Shotland. “We’re currently designing a series of writing workshops intended to encourage participants to explore ideas of abolition, abundance, resilience, and imagination, and Alona will be an inspiring mentor for these writers.”

Words Without Walls and Writers House Pittsburgh have come together as partners to name and support Alona Williams as the first Words Without Walls Writer-in-Residence.

Gina Ryder — New York, New York

Gina Ryder is a writer and teacher who has lived in New York City for the last decade. Her independent journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Marie Claire, New York Magazine and countless other publications. Raised in a union family in the greater Philadelphia area, Gina was the first in her family to go to college. She graduated from Columbia University's MFA program where she wrote her thesis on the loneliness epidemic. She has worked as a staff editor for various media outlets and as an adjunct professor of English where she's taught composition, journalism, and narrative medicine. Gina has also facilitated storytelling programs in hospitals, nursing homes, centers for recovery, and homeless shelters for a variety of populations ranging from teens to emergency medicine physicians.

After losing a full and part-time job in March of 2020, Gina, like many journalists and academics across the country, was forced to examine an unjust and isolating labor system and her place within it. A year with Writers House offers Gina support in an unstable economy and time to not only recalibrate, but return to the book writing, reporting, and community service that her journalism deadlines and teaching course load hasn't afforded.

Gina plans to revise a memoir-in-essays that unearths what divides us and how we bridge that divide. Her work explores education, behavioral health, social class in America, and human intimacy.  She will also continue to work as a freelance journalist, broadening her scope across her home state of Pennsylvania, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt.

❝ In times of widespread grief and precariousness, it's easy to assume loss and strain will persist. Yet, by opening its doors with the spirit of generosity, the Writers House has already helped to usher in a kind of collective renovation. It's providing us the rare stability to pursue true storytelling with community, mentorship, and a home. I'm thrilled to be part of the House's life-changing work.  ❞