Short Story Award Winners – Agency Review

WINNER – “Elbow in Zulu” by Dara Kell

“Elbow in Zulu” reveals a nuanced narrative beneath its ostensibly cheerful tone, delving into the complex intersections of South Africa’s race and class divides. Told from a plural, jocular, and occasionally elusive perspective, the story explores the fears and obsessions of an affluent group of friends in Johannesburg. Reading this piece, we may question what it means to be charitable and ask who or what is worthy of our philanthropy. As we reach the denouement, we may not be sure who to champion, vilify, or disdain—an ambiguity that deepens the pleasure of the reading. — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti

 One Sunday, Richard was late for our walk. Our dogs missed Dottie, his three-legged Staffie and we missed him, our white-haired Quaker, our leader, our dearest friend. It was Richard who had brought us together in the first place (safety in numbers, he’d said, never less than five), and for the first time in as long as we could remember, Richard had not come.

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Biographical Statement:

I’ve written stories from a very young age. My father is a poet and my mother is an English teacher. I was taught that stories matter, and that reading is one of the best things you can do with your time. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. But it took me a long time to believe in myself, to dare to call myself a “writer.” I’ve now somehow got two story collections pieced together (besides a few unfinished novels).

My current project is a collection of stories drawn from life in South Africa. Some are set in the present, some in the past or the near future. What links them is that the narrators are all trying, in their own sometimes flawed way, to make sense of a bizarre and often cruel country—one in which people nonetheless survive, love each other fiercely, and laugh at themselves.

Growing up during Apartheid warped me; it warped us all. I was the only child of a single mother, and although we sometimes ran out of food at the end of the month, it was nothing compared to what Black kids my age had to go through. I was born in 1980, and was a teenager during the heady days of democracy. It shaped me, and it shaped what I write about. I’m interested in systems of violence and how individuals and collectives can fight oppression. I write about the entanglements of race and class here in South Africa, particularly from a perspective of poor whites.

Being pulled into activism in my early twenties taught me about power, privilege, resistance, survival. I write about people who are forced to draw on deep, sometimes secret reserves in order to get what they want. My career as a documentary filmmaker taught me the value of going deeper to reveal the truth, of turning things over and over until they make sense. Of sometimes breaking open a story to reveal its beating heart.

I’m also working on a second story collection, this time set in New York, where I lived for two decades. This family of stories centers around women, many of them artists, in various stages of love and heartbreak. I write about women at work, and about women artists, musicians and photographers. It’s a sweet and maddening challenge to try to express the inexpressible. I’m having fun with these stories, and experimenting with innovative forms. I try to write the things that I want to read.

Besides the two collections, I’ve got some other projects in the works. A gritty, sexy crime novel set in Johannesburg, told from multiple perspectives. And a YA series inspired, in part, by Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and featuring a gentle, highly intelligent bunny who unwittingly saves the world, and a host of lost souls who seek and find solace in true friendship.

Other than writing, I live in Cape Town with my husband and son, and a cat. I love swimming in the freezing cold Atlantic, and hiking in the mountains that surround Cape Town. My new documentary “An Unsettling Force” will be released this summer. I’m inspired by the people whose lives I document with my camera, and feel honored to have been let into their worlds and entrusted in this way.

I’m completing an MA in History at the University of the Western Cape, and delving into experimental history writing, which is birthing new ideas for me, and new works.

Link to other work: “Small Holding” – winner of the 2015 Zoetrope All:Story Short Fiction Prize:

Personal website:

Interview with the author at The Masters Review


SECOND PLACE – “Broken Animals” by Aurora Stone Mehlman

“Broken Animals” begins with a scene of stampeding wild mustangs that is so vividly described I felt my pulse quicken with the rhythm of its phrases—“a roan, a painted, a dun headwind.” This story might be between Caroline and her troubled son, Hector, or it might be between Caroline and a wounded warrior with prosthetic elbows, with whom Caroline enters into a moment of hard-earned intimacy. And it is intimacy that this story pursues, even as its broken humans seek an adventure that is both unlikely and beautiful. — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti

 In the paddock, the mustangs, coats scummy with white sweat, slowed their gallop. Some stumbled over their own legs, some trotted, and some stopped. Wormy stomachs heaved; tongues lay limp on chomping pink lips. The stampede was over.

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Biographical Statement:

Of my work, my graduate advisor Brady Udall once said, “It’s as if Joy Williams ate Cormac McCarthy.” In one short story, a child’s father vanishes. Too young to comprehend his disappearance, she imagines he is a missing swimmer spotted in a Pacific riptide. Adrift, she boards a bus in the palm desert bound for Los Angeles to find him. In another story, a couple far from home and fleeing turn off the highway, drawn to the mysterious fire in a field and a farmhouse, which they explore covertly, discovering a haunting secret that shifts their perspectives on the meaning of home.

My experiences shape the writer I am. I had a troubled childhood, dropped out of high school, and left home on foot, ending up in Chicago. Soon, I lost my friends, and met two boys. After deciding to hitchhike the winter-enrobed country, we lay two states huddled in the back of a pickup. A policeman drove us across St. Louis because he feared for our lives. Eventually we arrived in Colorado and climbed red rock spires.

I spent the next years hitchhiking, living on the streets and within forests, in an out of jails, earning my GED during one stint, until, after many friends and lovers died, I scrabbled out, eventually settling in the mountains of Oregon, where I ski patrolled, rangered, and backpacked much of the West. At 36, I headed to Boise State University’s MFA program in Fiction. Writers Rick Bass and Anthony Doerr served on my thesis committee. Now, I adjunct at BSU and the College of Western Idaho, teach creative writing at juvenile detentions, raise my daughter, and write.

Through my experiences of death and loss, I meditate on social displacement in America, and men and women seeking—and often failing—to find their own utopias. As a single mother, I am intrigued by questions of love and obligation, the pressures of navigating intimacy, material pressures, and the world as seen through innocent eyes. An undercurrent in my work is certainly the spiritual and miraculous.

Currently, I am working on finding homes for short stories from my collection, Consolacion and the Sea, which I hope to publish in full. In 2023, two stories were accepted at 45th Parallel and The Masters Review. In addition, I received encouraging and complimentary tiered rejections from journals including The New Yorker and Ploughshares (which, admittedly, I shouldn’t reference here—but the vote of confidence bolsters me).

In addition, I am working on two novels, and one is nearing completion. The first manuscript, The Starsplitters, spans a hundred years in the wilderness of Northwoods New Hampshire. Mount Chekelas Fire Lookout, a lonely outpost, forms the backdrop of the narrative. The protagonist, grieving an incomprehensible loss, discovers a clue that compels her to research the hidden histories of two generations of women lookouts. She uncovers a long-silenced tale of generational conflict, religious violence, proscribed love, and irreversible breaking points.

In my second manuscript, a teenager hitchhikes a circuitous route west, immersed in a frightening underworld of complex, often antagonistic, characters and evocative settings, to deliver her boyfriend’s ashes to his grieving parents.

I am seeking an agent to represent my short fiction collection, my upcoming novels, and future publications.

Interview with the author at The Masters Review


THIRD PLACE – “Dog Days” by Catherine Carberry

How well do we know our neighbors, our ex-husbands, or ourselves for that matter? “Dog Days” is a closely observed story that asks these questions in an idyllic town in the Cape. Its narrator gifts us an unsentimental view into a neighbor’s troubled marriage even as her own ex-husband mails her accusatory letters chronicling her faults. These juxtapositions bridge a series of what ifs, and if anything in the end is left unscathed, perhaps it’s the story’s eponymous dogs who wander unleashed. — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti

I met Peter the same day Lori disappeared, though I didn’t know it yet. I was with the dogs, always with the dogs, when he pulled up in a Sprinter, like something a band with some success but not fame would tour in. He was sixty or older, with long grey hair and stubble, but he still had that rich guy sense around him, like he was someone who’d retired at forty-five from some obscene career and still was living off the money his money made.

Biographical Statement:

Catherine is not currently seeking representation.


HONORABLE MENTION – “Level of Emergency” by Tanya Nikiforova

In her fourth month of renewed sobriety, Paula still believes in the power of visions. She is a pragmatic woman but accepts her susceptibility to old-fashioned apparitions and reads extensively about telepathy. Much later she will use clinical terms and describe it all as—my fucked-up brain chemistry, burned out circuits, random neurotransmitter explosions, and sap seeping from my brain. But in this last week of September, Paula knows to read the signs and feels grateful for this guiding light.

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Biographical Statement:

When I was in my teens, I could no longer ignore the strong pulse of creativity inside of me. Somewhat frantically, as if I could not control the hose from which that creativity flowed, I wrote short stories, scribbled poems, and painted cityscapes. I was certain that I would become a writer or painter, but my family had immigrated from Belarus just a decade prior and we were all still struggling with the basics of survival in America. My parents’ reaction was of abject terror when I proclaimed interest in an unstable, underpaid life as a professional creative. What would they tell relatives back home? In the end, they put it simply: “That’s not why we came to America.”

Thus my path to serious writing was circuitous. I obtained a B.A. in Psychology and Education at Swarthmore College, and later a degree in medicine from Case Western Reserve University. The years of medical training were arduous, and I often wondered if all of it—the exhaustion, the pain and suffering witnessed, the overwhelming amount of information to be learned—would finally extinguish my creative flame. But when I found myself on the other side, in a career as a primary care physician and with school-aged children no longer depending on my undivided attention, I discovered, thrillingly, that the flame was burning strong.

I am grateful for this road. My daily work exposes me to the awe-inspiring breadth of the human experience, and I draw on this often in my writing. I have the great privilege of getting to listen to the myths, histories, and truths of ordinary people. I write short stories grounded in our fragile humanity, in the absurdity of our existence, in the specific and brilliant ways we all fail, and in our endless search for redemption. I draw, too, on my experience as an immigrant. Being on the outside for so many years sharpened my skills as an observer of people and fed my empathy for anyone who has ever failed to belong.

Here are a few examples of short stories ready for submission. In GOOD DAYS, Patricia’s husband, Richard, is in throes of dementia. As she cares for him, she finds herself drawn deeper into a peculiar delusion in which Richard believes that he was once a decorated Army general. As his health declines, their daughters and physicians urge Patricia to place him in a nursing facility, but she isn’t ready. Despite decades together, she wonders if there’s one last mystery to unlock about the love of her life.

In A DARK PLACE TO REST, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, Lulu and her grandmother find themselves trapped in the wolf’s belly together. To survive, they share stories about Lulu’s distant, mysterious, brilliant mother who recently died in a tragic accident. Through these stories, they grieve, and discover that this time, they will have to rescue themselves.

In addition, my flash-fiction piece, FLESH WOUNDS, is long-listed and awaiting final determination for publication in Fractured Literary Anthology Volume 4.

HONORABLE MENTION – “That Chookaloski Mare” by Ashley Thorup

I had a mental filing system. Positive to the front, accessible, tended to. Negative to the back, boxed up and collecting dust. I let the memories I loved play on repeat: us loading the U-Haul—piled up like the Griswolds going on a family vacation—and moving me onto the ranch, the night we watched Tombstone twice in a row, a note he left on the counter that read I love you, I need you, I love you, I need you, scribbled two dozen times.

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Biographical Statement:

Ashley Thorup is a home birth midwife and mother of two daughters living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her writing has been featured in the NYC Pride Guide and The Arkansas Traveler. She was the recipient of a Paragraph Summer Residency and a Getaway Fellow. She received second place in the 2021 Tennessee Williams Festival Fiction Contest, chosen by Minrose Gwin. She has an MFA from New York University.



At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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