The recent death of noted author and playwright Jon Shirota, the last member of the prolific Lowney Handy Writers Colony of the 1950s and ’60s near Marshall, has prompted a resurgence of contributions for a scholarship to inspire future writers from the area.
The Lowney Turner Handy Creative Writing Scholarship was established at Marshall High School in honor of the unconventional namesake and co-founder of the writers colony known for her early nurturing of James Jones, author of “From Here to Eternity,” “The Thin Red Line” and other acclaimed works. In gratitude to his former mentor, Shirota had provided $5,000 to give $500 annually to one graduating senior who best demonstrates an interest and ability in writing.
The last aspiring writer to live, train and work at the colony, Shirota, a Japanese-American who was born and raised on Maui and lived in Southern California, went on to publish several acclaimed novels and plays: “Lucky Come Hawaii,” written at the colony in the early 1960s, “Pineapple White,” “Chronicles of Ojii-Chan” and several other stories.
In the opening chapter of “Lucky Come Hawaii,” the news has just reached Maui that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That causes miscommunications, confusion and rumors of war that aggravate the already-tense relations among the diverse immigrant population, Native Hawaiians and the American military. Told through the perspective of a poor Okinawan family, of which Shirota was born into, the novel captures the emotions and trauma that change forever the fate and way of life for everyone on the island.
After it was adapted into a play, it was awarded a production grant from the John F. Kennedy Center for new plays and led to other plays and other playwriting awards for Shirota. He received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the American College Theater Festival, the Los Angeles Actors Theater Festival of One Acts, the Los Angeles County Cultural Affairs Department and the Japanese U.S. Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts. “Leilani’s Hibiscus” and “Voices of Okinawa” were published in “Voices from Okinawa” (manoajournal.hawaii.edu) and have been performed in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Okinawa and Japan.
Shirota wanted to fund the scholarship to honor Handy for nurturing him and helping him become a writer. Without her, he doubted he would ever have achieved his goal. He was working as an Internal Revenue Service representative in Los Angeles when Handy invited him to the colony in 1963. He resigned immediately, loaded up and drove the 2,000 miles to Marshall. On occasional trips back to Marshall and the area for the James Jones Literary Society symposia, Shirota would visit Handy’s grave in Marshall and leave a bouquet of flowers and stand before her grave in quiet contemplation.
“She showed me the way,” Shirota always said. “And I have a signed picture of her that she gave me on the wall of my office that I look up to each day as I sit down to write. She inspires me. My contribution to the writing scholarship is my way of honoring what she did for me.”
The $500 annual scholarship is given to the graduating Marshall High School senior who completes an application, holds a GPA of 2.5 or higher — Shirota liked the lower GPA because he never graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Army as soon as he was old enough (he was stationed at Schofield Barracks, where Jones was stationed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor) — and completes a creative-writing essay outlined by Engish teacher Amy Gard or her successor. Recipients also receive a copy of the book “Writings From the Handy Colony,” donated by Tales Press.
The Marshall Public Library has all the books written by members of the Handy Writers Colony. Besides the books of Shirota and Jones, other writers from the colony who published books include Edwin “Sonny” Daly (who left $100,000 to the library when he died), Don Sackrider, John Bowers, Tom Chamales, Jere Peacock and Charles Wright.
When Shirota made the initial contribution in 2017 at almost 90, he laughed and said, “If I live to be 100, I’ll give another $5,000 to continue it for another 10 years.”
Jon didn’t make it for another 10 years, but the members of the James Jones Literary Society and others who appreciate Handy’s contributions to the literary world are hoping to continue the scholarship for many years. Contributions may be made to Friends of the Marshall Public Library (a 501(c)(3) organization), Attn: Director, 612 Archer Ave., Marshall, IL 62441, earmarked “Jon Shirota” in the check memo.