Spring 2014 Graduate Literary Prize Awards: Fiction
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of the novel Magic City RelicHow to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, the John Gardner Book Prize, and the Devil's Kitchen Reading Award. A winner of an O. Henry Prize and a former Bread Loaf Fellow, she recently held the Picador Guest Professorship for Literature at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Ploughshares, Epoch, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other magazines. She's currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Florida State University. Originally from Miami, she lived in Champaign-Urbana for almost three years in the late 2000s and misses Radio Maria, the Douglass Branch Library, the Blind Pig, and the Harvest Moon Drive-In in nearby Gibson City.
Josephine M. Bresee Memorial Award in Short Fiction, $500: Nafissa Thompson-Spires, "This Todd"
Hemingway's old adage from A Movable Feast about writing "one true sentence" sometimes baffles me in practice (what exactly constitutes a true sentence anyway?), but as a reader, I know the shock and pleasure of a true sentence when I encounter one, and true sentences--in the form of confessions--abound in "This Todd." This story is bold in its presentation of a narrator obsessed with seeking out and controlling disabled lovers; the writer proves to us that it's not likability but complexity that counts, and I haven't encountered a character as interesting and complex--as brutally honest from sentence to sentence--as Kim in quite some time. I was impressed by the writer's ability to present Kim as simultaneously sympathetic and cruel via the use of the conversational tone of this first-person narration. Kim's voice is so realistically and compelling crafted that we forget we're even reading a story; we're instead listening to a woman reach out to us, and as listeners, we're implicated in what she's trying to admit. There's an undeniable urgency to her narrative, and the prose is never decorative or imagistic for its own sake, but instead, as is the case in the strongest, most memorable stories, each image is vital, pointing always to the subtext. Layer into all this the story's unconventional and remarkable structure, its willingness to show us how close it is to breaking apart with sentences like "I'm trying to put this together the best way I can." The structure itself mirrors Kim's own turmoil and confusion about the nature of her desires. And desire and power and agency are at the heart of this sophisticated story, which never flinches from the sometimes-ugly nature of the human heart and its struggle to understand itself.
Robert J. and Katharin Carr Graduate Fiction Prize, $300: Roya Khatiblou, " The Two Blancas"
It takes a special kind of budding cruelty to name a potentially precancerous mole on your mother's boyfriend's face "Hope," but that's exactly what we get in "The Two Blancas." This story is deft in its subtlety, in the way it inhabits the consciousness of Manda and points to its subtext using precise, vivid, and disturbing details: from the moment Lonny--who has lately become Manda's main caretaker--enters this story, the reader is uncomfortable without really knowing why (though he is literally lurking in the shadows when we meet him). But the subtext of the gestures pointing to the sexual attraction between Manda and her pseudo-step father--gestures like "Lonny sauntered down to the pool and sat on the edge...his legs open toward her"--tells us all we need to know about the disastrous potential between these two characters. That potential gets diverted, as it must, onto another target, but the end of the story leaves the reader chilled by what Manda, with Jacqueline's help, has just unleashed within herself.
Honorable Mention: Avery Irons, "Wading"