Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2017
Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest!
First Prize $1,500 Fiction
Joan Corwin, Length of Days
First Prize $1,500 Nonfiction
Debbie Weingarten, The Mule Deer
Honorable Mention $100
- Laure-Helene Boudier, Obroni’s Heart, Fiction
- Wendie Burbridge, The Finder, Fiction
- Tracy Dowling, To Live Without Air, Fiction
- Alec Solomita, Return, Fiction
- Cady Vishniac, Girls Needed $200/HR Weekends and Nights, Fiction
- Cady Vishniac, No One Said It Would Be Easy, Fiction
- Anita Zachary, Moochy, Fiction
- Queenie Au, My Mother’s Life, Nonfiction
- Deb Brandon, Moving Past the Label, Nonfiction
- Elizabeth Brina, Arizabesu, Nonfiction
- Sharon Mack, Buoyancy, Nonfiction
- Jacqueline Sheehan, Two More Fishing Trips, Nonfiction
In our 2017 contest, 1,417 entries were judged by Judy Juanita with assistance from Lauren Singer. Ms. Juanita shares her thoughts below:
The caliber of writing and level of craft was apparent in the first few lines of the winning pieces. Writers who had polished their work had these characteristics in common: concision, depth, flow. The winning essay was a great model. The writer took an unusual approach to her subject, a failed marriage. Without resorting to cliché or triteness, she examined the breakdown of the institution of marriage through an extended metaphor of a dying deer. Aristotle said the use of metaphor is a sign of genius. The devastated wife focused on the deer, but the reader strained for the sparse blunt mentions of the marriage. This turned out to be a device that heightened suspense, not about the deer's death, but about when and how brutally the next revelation about the dissolution would appear. This piece was singularly excellent in its use of narrative and exposition.
Several very interesting honorable mentions in fiction stood out because they handled themes many others had chosen with efficiency. Length, or better brevity, has to be a factor in writing. Hemingway's advice to cut the first third and last third of a story is harsh but worth trying. It takes skill that many pieces lacked.
I was struck by the attempts at dialect and black speech. Some were downright offensive, some poorly done. "Writing black" involves far more insight than using the n-word, and it can't be done by remaining outside of the issues of race and racism. Then it becomes racist. It doesn't have to be a screed or a diatribe, but it has to be handled with the right amount of pressure.
Several standouts were set abroad, in the Middle East, Israel, Asia, Africa or India. The writers used foreign languages and place names deftly. See "Obroni's Heart" for a wonderful sensitivity in writing about colonialism from a child's perspective.
The winner this year for fiction is Joan Corwin's "Length of Days". This story holds its core of tenderness inside a bitter lemon of terminal prostate cancer. An older gentleman chooses a medical death sentence over impotency and chooses to withhold this information from his much younger lover. To bear it stoically, though, isn't easy. Many powerful images and a wonderful soundtrack (pull up the Bach and Mozart pieces cited in the tale) underscore how hard letting go of life is for such a passionate man.
Fiction Honorable Mentions went to:
- Laure-Helene Boudier, "Obroni's Heart"—A lively story that runs through a marketplace of twists and turns while touching on colonialism.
- Wendie Burbridge, "The Finder"—A burial at sea and a Navy widow: ingredients for a sob story, but a sharper tone prevents sentiment from overtaking the story.
- Tracy Dowling, "To Live Without Air"—You can smell the cigarette smoke and taste the bitter yield of a father's long mean life in this daughter's return to Bogota.
- Alec Solomita, "Return"—A good old-fashioned acid trip which only wears off when the tripster has to reenter the orbit of his discordant family.
- Cady Vishniac, "No One Said It Would Be Easy"—Interesting take on new motherhood because of a compelling second-person point-of-view narrator.
- Cady Vishniac, "Girls Needed $200/HR Weekends and Nights"—This story is set up as a primer for a young prostitute. It pulls no punches, handles its business and is also quite literary.
- Anita Zachary, "Moochy"—A good character sketch in a straightforward narrative. Its strength is its doggedness.
The winner for nonfiction is Debbie Weingarten's "The Mule Deer". This expertly crafted example of creative nonfiction makes fine use of suspense and of T.S. Eliot's objective correlative, using a dying deer to illustrate the breakdown of a marriage. The author handles the bulk of the story—the dying deer—like needlepoint. You are compelled to follow every stitch to grasp the depth of disillusionment on the part of the wife, and the hardness of the husband. Not a dissonant note in the entire essay.
Nonfiction Honorable Mentions went to:
- Queenie Au, "My Mother's Life"—Deftly and closely examines marriage, culture in Hong Kong and the indelible effects of divorce.
- Deb Brandon, "Moving Past the Label"—American-Palestinians, Israelis, the Middle East: a jumble of stories that works as a whole, unlike the region.
- Elizabeth Brina, "Arizabesu"—The mother-daughter bond in all its bittersweet tension plays against a background of language distortion.
- Sharon Mack, "Buoyancy"—The details, exact and careful, illustrate the pain of a broken spirit to the bearer, who accidentally caused a boy's death, and his loved ones.
- Jacqueline Sheehan, "Two More Fishing Trips"—This essay takes on the slow horror of watching a sibling die from cancer: a brother who has been an irascible man, violent, mean, nearly psychopathic.
Lauren Singer is an assistant judge of our Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest and North Street Book Prize, critiques poems, stories, and essays, and is a past judge of our Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest. She is a native New Yorker living in Western Massachusetts. Her poetry has been published in Nerve House, Bareback, Feel the Word, Read This, Kosmosis, One Night Stanzas, and other literary magazines across the country. In 2015 she received her MSW at the University of Chicago, is a graduate of Bard College at Simon's Rock and an attendee of the New York State Summer Writer's Institute. She has self-published three chapbooks, and received an honorable mention in the 2011 Wergle Flomp contest. In addition to her creative interests, Lauren works as a mental health clinician and therapist in Holyoke, MA. Lauren prides herself on her wealth of useless knowledge, namely of nineties R&B lyrics, and she can pretty much quote "The X-Files".
Judy Juanita was the final judge of our 25th Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest. Her debut novel, Virgin Soul, chronicles a black female coming of age in the 60s who joins the Black Panther Party (Viking, 2013). Novelist Jean Thompson said of Virgin Soul: "Hard to believe it's been almost fifty years since the formation of the Black Panthers. The novel captures that time's particular combination of violence and possibility, and the urgency of young people who invested everything in the possibility of change, even as grand rhetoric was undercut by very human failings."
Juanita's collection of essays, De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland (EquiDistance Press, 2016), examines the intersectionality of race, gender, politics, economics, and spirituality as experienced by a black activist and self-described "feminist foot soldier". DeFacto Feminism was selected as Book-of-the-Month for December 2016 by the African Americans on the Move Book Club (AAMBC), and was a Kirkus Reviews Book-of-the-Month for March 2017, which gave it a starred review. Juanita is a contributing editor for The Weekling, an online journal, where many of the essays appeared. The collection was a distinguished finalist in OSU's 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. Her work is archived at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture.
Crab Orchard Review's Allison Joseph said Juanita's fiction "should be required reading for anyone studying the vicissitudes of recent American history." Juanita's short stories and essays appear widely, and her poetry has appeared in Obsidian II, 13th Moon, Painted Bride Quarterly, Croton Review, The Passaic Review, Lips, New Verse News, Poetry Monthly, and Drumrevue 2000.
In drama, Juanita's themes are social issues overlaid with absurdity, humor and pathos (in one play, a distraught nurse whose teenage son has overdosed falls head over heels in love with a duck). Her seventeenth play, "Theodicy", about two black men who accidentally fall into the river of death, won first runner-up of 186 plays in the Eileen Heckart 2008 Senior Drama Competition at Ohio State University
She was awarded New Jersey Arts Council Fellowships for her poetry and earned an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She has taught writing at Laney College in Oakland, California, since 1993.