We’re excited to announce the winners of our annual writing prizes, honoring the best writing to appear in our pages in the past year.
Staige D. Blackford Prize for Nonfiction:
- Philip Caputo for “Life on the Line: The Arizona-Mexico Border” (Spring issue)
Philip Caputo’s essay about life along the Arizona-Mexico border is a perfect example of how journalism and literature can be combined to bring us not only the news but the human impact of political decisions. Phil doesn’t see things in simple terms; he doesn’t caricature anyone, but also doesn’t let anyone off the hook. As a result, this piece is the deepest, most probing, and unsettling essay I’ve read on this complicated subject. There are no easy answers, but there is a lot revealed and many possibilities to pursue. To my mind, that’s what the best nonfiction can do: open doors.
Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry:
- Peter Balakian for three poems in the Fall issue: “World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’71,” “World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’73,” and “World Trade Center / Black Holes / ’74”
Peter Balakian’s poems are a unique and haunting take on the tragedy of 9/11. Rather than focusing on the horrors of that day, these poems narrate Peter’s naive admiration for the towers when he worked there as a mail runner in the early ’70s. His language is lush and exuberant—I’m reminded of Hart Crane’s odes to the Brooklyn Bridge or Walt Whitman’s lines of praise for Broadway—but in Peter’s work, this energy is freighted with the coming loss that we see from our historical perspective. The effect is poignant without ever straying into the maudlin.
Emily Clark Balch Prize for Short Story (co-winners):
Helon Habila’s story does what so much great fiction does: it opens our eyes to worlds we never knew existed, even as it pulls us along with a thrilling narrative. We see the backstreets and dive motels of Lagos, Nigeria, the effects of poor infrastructure in the form of rolling blackouts and train worker strikes, but these details serve to support a story that is, at its heart, a tale of danger and intrigue—a thriller revolving around murder for money and a young man who is willing to venture into these dangerous waters for the promise of quick fortune. The story couldn’t be more timeless, but it also couldn’t be rooted more firmly in its setting.
Brendan Mathews’s story is a kind of meditation on the nature of storytelling itself. It is a domestic drama built on slow revelations and focused on the intrigue of learning facts that change the way we view those unknowable people we call our family. We are especially excited by this story, because Brendan is one of our own. He served as a reader on VQR’s fiction board while he was a student in the UVA MFA program. Now he is teaching and writing full time and producing top-flight work.
The Emily Clark Balch Prizes for short story and poetry were established in 1955. Past recipients include Wendell Berry, John Berryman, Hayden Carruth, Carolyn Forché, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, and May Sarton. The Staige D. Blackford Prize for nonfiction, established in 2003, is named for the seventh editor of VQR who retired in 2003 after guiding the magazine for twenty-eight years. The complete list of past winners can be seen here. Each prize includes a monetary award of $1,000.