Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil

Department of Film and Creative Writing
Doctoral researcher

Contact details

PhD titleErebo: A narrative and critical exploration of representations of a queer underground in South America as a revolutionary space, a postcolonial space, and a gendered space
Supervisor: Dr Dan Vyleta

PhD Creative Writing


  • MS in Journalism (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism)
  • MFA in Creative Writing (Sarah Lawrence College)
  • BA in Theatre (Oberlin College)


I’m an award-winning author and journalist who lives in many countries. My newest novel, Exile Music, was released by Viking (US) in May. My previous novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. The novel has received much acclaim, notably in the Seattle TimesPublishers Weekly, Booklist, and The New York Times Book Review. My first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about my time as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was hailed by The New York TimesNewsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. I have an MS in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and a BA in Theatre from Oberlin College. I’m in my third year of PhD research in creative writing.


I currently teach creative writing in the MFA program at Rosemont College in Philadelphia, PA, and online at the Center for Creative Writing. I spent two years teaching writing to both undergraduate and graduate students at Bournemouth College in England. I have been a guest lecturer at many universities around the world, including the University of Algiers, SUNY Plattsburgh, Sarah Lawrence College, City University of New York, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. In Yemen, where I was the editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper, I taught journalism to Yemeni reporters.


My practice-based project, a novel, will investigate the ways in which a creative narrative can evoke the actual and metaphorical underground as a place not only of violence, suffering and exile, but also as a place of creative fertility, of the subversion of social convention and heteronormative assumptions, and of the fostering of identity and revolutionary ideas.

The Ancient Greek narrative convention of katabasis will provide a conceptual structure for an original contribution to the field of underground literature/descent narratives. Katabasis is the descent of a hero or heroine to the underworld, often in search of something. In Ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus descends to the underworld in the hope of recovering his lost wife. Katabasis can also refer to other journeys of discovery, such as that of Odysseus in Homer’s epic The Odyssey or Juan Preciado’s quest to find his father in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. In contemporary literature, katabasis is often more a metaphorical journey rather than a literal one, such as the narrator’s mental and emotional examination of his/her gender in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. My novel will weave the stories of a group of LGBTQ Bolivians dwelling in abandoned mining tunnels beneath a capital city with that of a foreign woman who becomes involved with them. Although the underground dwellers have been driven to seek refuge underground by the violence and prejudice of their society, they find more than mere safety in the dark.

The relationships between these women and the foreign interloper will be informed by my reading of postcolonial theory. My novel will excavate how the persistent damage of foreign dominations plays out in these lives whilst also reflecting on what it means to write about Bolivian women from the “outside” (i.e. as a non-Bolivian) and in English.

The narrative structure of my creative work will reflect the relationship between the underground and the society that made it necessary, with the underground represented by the voices of the subterranean Bolivians and the above-ground represented by the daughter of a diplomat. Initially, the voice of the foreigner will dominate, but over the course of the book the Bolivian voices will become dominant. The sections told from the point of view of the subterraneans will become longer while the sections told from the point of view of the foreigner will grow shorter until she is allowed just one line. This structure is one way I hope to resist reinforcing the dominance of the foreign voice, the narrative of white rule. I plan to develop further narrative strategies to reflect the problems of power and perspective implicit in a work by an Anglophone writer not a member of the victimized group, writing mostly for an Anglophone audience. I hope to engage the reader in thinking about problems of authenticity; of representations of power; and of who owns experience. I also hope to demonstrate that this is an important political story that ought to be made visible.

My critical work will examine select representations of the underground in both Anglophone and international literatures in translation and the various tropes of these narratives. These texts potentially include Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (a novel about doomed underground Mexican resistance fighters); Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (a novel that explores the Shining Path insurgency from the perspective of three women); Pedro Páramo, a novel about one man’s journey through a village of ghosts in search of his father; Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (a novel about the relationship between two men in an Argentine prison); Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (a novel about a group of underground poets); Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras, and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (a novel that explores queer Parisian underworlds). Once I have settled on the most relevant and illuminating texts, I will discuss the ways in which these novels grapple with the idea of underground as well as how my own work enters the conversation. My questions are about the representation of underworld and its uses, metaphorically and literally, in literature. I am interested in exploring the ways in which the underground has been gendered and the ways in which it is a postcolonial space.

My critical work will also examine whether the lives of LGBTQ South Americans, particularly the lives of women, have been neglected in the Latin American literary canon. Do male voices, particularly heterosexual male voices, dominate? Do women in much of South American literature exist merely as foils, to be objectified, violated, and manipulated by the men? If so, I would like to counter this macho narrative and add to the growing body of female and queer work about this part of the world.

Other activities

My freelance work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, Saranac Review, New Orleans Review, World Policy Journal, The Week, Time, Life, Peauxdunque Review, The Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die Welt, New York Post, The Rumpus, Readers’ Digest Version,, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radio, AARP The Magazine, and GRN Global Reporter Network Service.

I’m a professional, dues-paying member of the Authors Guild (US), PEN America (US), the Society of Authors (UK), the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) (UK), the European Association of Creative Writing Programmes (Europe), and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (US).


  • Winner, 2018 Creative Nonfiction Award, Words and Music Writing Competition, for “The Braille Machine”
  • Winner, 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award for The Ambassador’s Wife
  • Winner, Best Novel, 2013William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, for The Ambassador’s Wife
  • Finalist, Bisexual Book Award for Fiction 2015, for The Ambassador’s Wife
  • Finalist, Lascaux Novel Prize 2015, for The Ambassador’s Wife
  • Residency and Bursary, Hosking Houses Trust, England, November 2020
  • Residency, Craigardan Writers Residency, Keene, NY, Oct-Nov 2017 & August 2018
  • Residency, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Lincoln, Nebraska April-May 2017
  • Residency, Writers Omi at Ledig House, Ghent, NY, April 25-May 15, 2014
  • Residency, Willapa Bay, Washington, July 2014
  • Residency, The Byrdcliffe Artist in Residence Program, Woodstock, NY June/July 2013
  • Residency, Arte Studio Ginestrelle, Assisi, Italy, April 2013
  • Consultant/Speaker, A Room of Her Own Women’s Writing Retreat, August 2013, New Mexico
  • First Place, Specialty Reporting Portfolio, the New Jersey Press
  • Association's 1998 Better Newspaper Contest
  • First Place (staff award), Lloyd P. Burns Memorial Award for Public
  • Service, for the series "Heroin: A Clear and Present Danger," the New
  • Jersey Press Association's 1998 Better Newspaper Contest




Author, Exile Music, a novel, published by Viking USA in May 2020. It has received terrific reviews, including a starred Booklist review, and was selected by Good Morning America as one of the 25 Novels You'll Want to Read This Summer. 

Author, The Ambassador’s Wife, a novel, published by Doubleday in 2015 (Paperback 2016).

The book won the Best Novel award in the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award, and has received considerable critical acclaim, notably in the Seattle Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and The New York Times Book Review. It has been published in several other languages, including Italian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Polish.

The Mark Gordon Company optioned the film rights to The Ambassador’s Wife, with plans to create a television miniseries.

Author, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about my tenure as the editor of a newspaper in Yemen, published by Broadway Books in May 2010. It is also published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. The book received accolades in The New York Times and was chosen as a Travel Book of the Year by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Elle magazine awarded it its Readers’ Prize in August 2010. It has been reviewed in countless other periodicals and blogs.

Contributor, Not A Rose, CHARTA, Milan, New York, 2012. For this book, a hybrid work that is both book and conceptual art installation, I wrote an essay entitled “Roses After Rain.”

Short stories and essays

  • “A Heavy Thing to Carry,” Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Autumn 2020 issue of the New Orleans Review
  • “Exile in the Andes,” June 22, 2020, Jewish Book Council’s PB Daily
  • “The Braille Machine,” Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Autumn 2019 issue of the Peauxdunque Review
  • “How Writing Can Save Your Life,”, Summer 2020
  • “The Unanticipated Effects of Altitudewill be published by the A Room of Her Own Foundation in the anthology Waves: A Confluence of Women’s Voices, publication date TBA
  • “Captive,” Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Autumn 2016 issue of the Saranac Review
  • “Six great books about living abroad,” The Week, August 2015
  • “Fault Lines,” published and performed by Liars’ League in London, England, August 2015
  • “An Enemy to No Man But Himself,” The Rumpus, July 2015
  • The Last Man You Borrowed was a semi-finalist in the 2012 William Faulkner William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.
  • Accident won Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2015 Very Short Fiction Award.
  • “Sound and Fury,” Burlesque Press, February 2014