“In a mirrorless psychiatric hospital room, a woman relives her past as images click on in her head like a slide show. She is twelve years old again, forced to grow up too quickly in a world of poverty and misogyny, absent parents and toxic boy cousins, and Soobie, her mentally challenged girl cousin whom she attempts to save but inevitably fails. ‘Russian Thistle’ looks unflinchingly at trauma and the brittleness of humanity, but also captures the tenderness of one’s effort to be good. Intense and graceful, the story moves with a masterful fluidity and sentences so finely chiseled they sing and reverberate.” – Ye Chun, guest judge
Contact Information: email@example.com
Lucille Ball was my imaginary friend during kindergarten. She was funniest grownup I’d ever seen, but even better—she lived inside stories. Stories about pickles and chocolates and grapes, fallen cakes and, my favorite, a fake nose on fire (if you aren’t familiar, head on over to YouTube). Every day, with my after-school cheese sandwich, I’d switch on the I Love Lucy show, liberate Imaginary Lucy from the kitchen cabinet where she lived, and study, unwittingly, the structure of a story.
How unconventional, as literary beginnings go, especially for a writer who leans toward the darker side of life. But I learned something from Lucy and her mishaps—that we will follow a character down any path, no matter how illogical, if they’re trying with all their might. My own characters don’t often grapple with the comedic (save one poor fellow who keeps his prostate in a jar), but they persevere with a fortitude that staggers me.
A writing group peer once pointed out that a frequent device of mine is unearthing the humanity in a character who has done something unspeakable. The story I was workshopping at the time opens with an older woman witnessing the accidental drowning of two boys and doing nothing to stop it. Horrible, yes. But I wanted to know why. Why would a land-owning widow and mother decline this moral obligation? Partial answer: because she once tried with all her might to prevent a similar accident and failed. Does this justify her actions? Not necessarily, but her paralysis comes with such conviction (just like Lucy’s faith in her own grape-stomping skills) that treading the path of her beliefs leads us somewhere new. This is why I write, why we all write—to go somewhere new.
Thank you for following me this substantial, slightly absurd, leap between genres. I also thank Regis University for fostering my MA in creative writing, and to those former classmates who still patiently trade drafts for comment. I’ve been fortunate in finding homes for stories at Philadelphia Review, Aquifer, and Western Humanities Review, and give extra thanks to The Masters Review for finding merit in “Russian Thistle.” This is unquestionably the most difficult story I’ve written to date, the blurry, disturbed retrospection of a young woman who finds herself confronting unhealed trauma. Set in my New Mexico hometown, the story carries the wounding textures of its landscape, mingling my background in botany with the metaphysical—how do we store memories at a cellular, sensory level, and what happens, years later, when they reappear? Seeing these wonderings in print brings me great joy.
Currently, I am at work on a hybrid project mixing CNF musings about autoimmune illness and trauma with visual art, taking as inspiration my own health experiences, antique medical diagrams, and the wisdom of plant life.
Link to other work: “Windmills, The Boys” published at Philadelphia Stories
Interview with the Author at The Masters Review
SECOND PLACE – “A Single Mark” by Reena Shah
“In ‘A Single Mark,’ a young mother, Deepa, accompanies her pregnant friend to a follow-up sonogram and senses her own seemingly comfortable life unravelling. As she negotiates between motherhood and selfhood, childhood and adulthood, home country and the new country where she is yet to feel a sense of belonging, she finds her waking hours increasingly disintegrate into a dreamscape where a dark-haired woman is free to roam across realms. Exquisitely nuanced and superbly particular, the story is a compelling narrative about maternity and migration, about the difficult and necessary process of reimagining and reinventing oneself.” – Ye Chun, guest judge.
The baby was fine. Fine in the sense that it was growing and had all its limbs and organs and heartbeat. The word the radiologist used was “cosmetic.” No, “purely cosmetic.” The problems with the baby were pure. Pure problems.
Reena is not currently seeking representation.
Interview with the Author at The Masters Review
THIRD PLACE – “Creeper” by Taylor Sykes
“Set during the Trump presidency, ‘Creeper’ examines the abuse of power in both public and private spaces while following a woman’s lone battle to make things right. Grieving for her newly deceased mother, the narrator-protagonist becomes fixated on her cousin’s rapist. As she seeks to take actions against him, she finds her life spinning out of control, and the action she eventually takes does not come without further confusions and sorrow. Narrated with a searing voice and great control and acuity, the story rejects any suggestions of simple resolution in this world where injustice stalks our daily lives.” – Ye Chun, guest judge
Flipping through social media, I see Rebecca’s posted a picture of her and a friend out at a bar in Brooklyn. Isn’t that nice, how easily she’s enjoying her time in a distant city while I’m at home in the real world fighting her battles. Look at her, living her best life on her profile, and my own profile essentially empty.
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
In all my writing, I explore relationships between haunted women across generations and locations. Overarching is the notion that women are connected through mirrored experience or misfortunes. My stories often focus on tragicomic female characters who find themselves in conflict with the world and the other women around them. This female-centric mentality has encouraged the uncanny to creep into my work, especially in relation to the experiences of the body and the home. While my interests waver from project to project, the desire to tell stories that illuminate, complicate, and celebrate the lives of women remains a constant.
My works-in-progress include a novel-in-stories, Her Gothic Revival, and a short story collection centered around “Creeper.” With my novel-in-stories in particular, I was fascinated by the liminal space between realist and speculative fiction. As such, the novel could be found in a category with works like The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson in terms of its themes, with a structure similar to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. Ultimately, Her Gothic Revival is about some of the things I know best: small towns in the Midwest, historic houses, and how profoundly grief alters us, sometimes in the most remarkable ways. Two stories from this work have been published in the anthologies The Horror is Us (Mason Jar Press) and Dreamland: Other Stories (Black Shuck Books), the latter of which was shortlisted for Best Anthology by the British Fantasy Awards. Additionally, a new story from my developing story collection is forthcoming this winter in Hairstreak Butterfly Review.
Though originally from northwest Indiana, I currently live in North Carolina, where I’m a lecturer in the English department at UNC Asheville. This fall, I had the pleasure of teaching the university’s first horror writing workshop.
Interview with the Author at The Masters Review
HONORABLE MENTION – “The Crown Prince of Koi” by Daniel Abiva Hunt
When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like my father. He and my mom opened up one of the first Japanese restaurants in South Jersey. They called it Shiro, the castle, and they were king and queen.
Contact Information: email@example.com
I came into writing relatively late in life. Since the sixth grade, when I argued that an after-school “session” to complete a forgotten homework assignment was not a “detention” because it lacked the punitive element, my parents believed I was destined to be a lawyer. I believed so too, so much so that I went to law school and spent half a decade practicing law. I left law in 2019 to attend the MFA program at the University of Houston. I am now a first-year PhD student at the University of Cincinnati, where I teach and study fiction.
Much of my work centers on themes relating to my journey from lawyer to writer—occupation, repression, passion versus convention, social and economic advancement as a replacement for deeper fulfillment. “The Crown Prince of Koi” is from my story collection, which features working characters of different life stages across the socio-economic strata, from students to stage actors, fitness trainers to sushi chefs, and many, many lawyers—all afloat in a fictional American “half state” known as the Great Half State of South Jersey, meant to mirror their emotional and psychological states. Taking inspiration from the works of George Saunders and Jennifer Egan, as well as Jim Gavin’s Middle Men, the stories are tragicomic, arranged from apprentice to master, and feature characters that exist under the weight of capitalistic necessity, muddled dreams, and frustrated longing, in ways that, I hope, pairs comedy and compassion to reveal truths and celebrate the human condition.
I am also interested in Asian identity, multiculturism, and racial imposter syndrome. My mother’s parents left The Philippines when my grandfather joined the US Navy. She grew up all across the Pacific before settling in South Jersey. My father was born in Tennessee. We assume he’s of European descent, but no one really knows. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t white. Once after a t-ball game, one of the dads asked mine if he married a Chinese lady. I knew I wasn’t Asian either. My Asian friends always made sure to let me know. I remember staring in the mirror, trying to determine what I was. Twenty years later, I’m still trying.
I am working on a novel about a Filipino American divorce lawyer who is engaged to represent his childhood best friend, who is white, in a contentious custody battle over the friend’s twelve-year old son. This dynamic strains the friendship, which spills over into each of their now separate lives. This novel, entitled The Great Half State, also takes place in a fictionalized South Jersey, which suffered a surreal, Brexit-like divorce from North Jersey, causing an isolated economic disaster. I hope to evoke a sense of place and community with as much detail, authority, and compassion as Tom Drury does Grouse County, or Sherwood Anderson does Winesburg, Ohio, or Faulker does Yoknapatawpha County. The novel incorporates themes of male friendship, the absurdity of traditional notions of masculinity, the generational divide, being caught between two cultures, socioeconomic disparity, and the dissolution of communities and relationships. Like Tom Drury’s books, the novel uses an omniscient, deadpan narrator to provide insight into all the parties involved, who each have legitimate grievances with each other, but whose behavior can be as comically and tragically absurd as a sovereign state choosing to leave an economic union.