Third Time’s a Charm: College of Liberal Arts Awards Keene Prize for Literature to Michener Center Graduate Student

FIONA PHOTOFiona McFarlane, a Michener Center for Writers (MCW) graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for her story, “A Fortunate Man.”

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

McFarlane was a finalist in 2010 and again in 2011. This year she has finally taken the big prize. Her short story “A Fortunate Man” was chosen from more than 60 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction.

“The story demonstrates her talent for original characterization, vivid and sensuous description and subtle irony,” said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and the award selection committee. “All the judges praised her immaculately spare and elegant prose.”

McFarlane, who is graduating from MCW this spring, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney, Australia, and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, England. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Best Australian Stories, Missouri Review, Zoetrope, and Dossier. In 2010 she won The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize, and last month she won the Roy Crane Award for the Literary Arts. She is currently working on a novel.

In addition to McFarlane, the three finalists are:

Carolina Ebeid, MCW graduate, for her masterly collection of poems, “Small Beauty of the Forest.” Ebeid was also a finalist in 2011.

Corinne Greiner, graduate of the New School for Writers in the university’s Department of English, for her vivid and compelling creative nonfiction piece, “Blood Holler.”

Corey Miller, first year master of fine arts student at the MCW, for his witty and direct collection of poems, “How we say I love you in coal country.”

Members of the 2008 selection committee were: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (ex officio); Brant Pope, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Dave Hamrick, director of The University of Texas Press; and Tom Zigal, novelist and speechwriter for The University of Texas System.

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and support the work of young writers. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.

Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

Creative Writing Graduate Wins Keene Award for Literature

Nora Boxer, winner of this year's Keene Prize.

Nora Boxer, winner of this year's Keene Prize.

Nora Boxer, a graduate of the Creative Writing Program in the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for her story “It’s the song of the nomads, baby; or, Pioneer.”

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Boxer’s story was chosen from 61 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. Laconic in style, it unsentimentally evokes the artistic, old hippy, new punk eco-lifestyle in New Mexico. In a sharply evoked landscape of bare mesas and changing seasons, among a cast of characters ranging from the shallow and self-aggrandizing to the stoically compassionate, the pregnant heroine tries to make sense of her commitment to a life “off the grid.”

“As we watch the devastating consequences of our oil addiction unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, Nora’s story takes on particular resonance,” said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and chair of the award selection committee. “She examines the costs and consequences of an attempt to live responsibly as well as creatively.”

Boxer graduated Brown University in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and earned her master’s degree in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin this year. She has had a varied career in arts, agriculture, community and non-profit work, including an apprenticeship at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California and work with a literary organization in Taos, N.M.  She is developing a nonprofit, sustainable urban arts residency in Oakland.

In addition to Boxer, the three finalists are:

Roger Reeves, master of fine arts graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, for his collection of poetry, “King Me.” These allusive poems appropriate paintings, classic literature and history to build a formally inventive, emotionally intense and rhythmically powerful structure.

Fiona McFarlane, master of fine arts student of the Michener Center, for two stories, “Mycenae” and “Exotic Animal Medicine.” McFarlane’s prose is polished, elegant and witty, while her displaced characters are sharp observers of the original and awkward situations in which she places them.

Virginia Reeves, master of fine arts student of the Michener Center, for three stories, “Investments as Big as These,” “Why Don’t You Put that Down” and “Her Last Dead Child.” These stories employ strong dialogue and rich descriptive detail to evoke the complicated relations between parents and children.

Members of the 2008 selection committee included: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Holly Williams, chair ad interim of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Joanna Hitchcock, director of The University of Texas Press; and resident author Tom Zigal, novelist and speechwriter for President William Powers Jr.

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and reputation in the international market of American writers. The competition is open to all university undergraduate and graduate students, and the prize is awarded annually to the student who creates the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.


THEN CAME THE NOVEL

Brian Hart, author of "Then Came the Evening"

UT alumnus Brian Hart likes to work against the grain. Maybe that explains why he was able to sell his first novel in the aftermath of Black Wednesday—December 3, 2008—when many of publishing top names announced layoffs, firings, suspended acquisitions, salary freezes, or major restructurings. A week later, Hart signed a deal with Bloomsbury for his debut work “Then Came the Evening.” The book released in December 2009 with a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly and advance praise all around, and an author tour brings Hart to Austin on January 21, 2010.

A 2008 graduate of the UT Michener Center for Writers’ MFA program, Hart grew up in rural Idaho and put off college for a series of vividly blue-collar jobs across the American West—trapper, fisherman, drywall hanger, line cook, trim carpenter, welder, and hotel desk clerk are among those variously mentioned in his biographical blurbs. Then in his late 20s, he completed a Bachelor of Arts  at Portland State and joined the Michener MFA program in 2005. At the end of his first year, he won the $90,000 inaugural Keene Prize in Literature from The University of Texas at Austin. Doomsayers predicted it was enough cash or hype to ruin a budding author, and, sure enough, agents and publishers came calling right away for stories or novel pages, but Hart held back. He stuck to his old work habits and finished his MFA in May 2008 with the novel all but done and an agent willing to wait for the final draft.

Set in Hart’s native Idaho, the novel opens as Vietnam vet and local troublemaker Bandy Dorner wakes up from a bender to find his cabin burned to the ground and his pregnant wife dead, or so he believes. Two cops are killed in his ensuing rage, and Dorner serves eighteen years in prison. But his wife isn’t dead, and when Dorner returns home to a son he never knew, the three damaged characters struggle for reconciliation and forgiveness.

“‘Then Came the Evening” is an edgy and affecting debut from a writer already bursting with promise and achievement. His novel of love squandered and oh-so-nearly retrieved is a triumph,” says author Jim Crace, the distinguished visiting novelist with whom Hart worked during his final year of the MFA.

As Hart waited for the book’s release, he went back to framing houses and trying to carve out writing time for a second novel every day—one way or the other, hammering away at it. “Published novelist” can now claim a spot between “potato sorter” and “roofer” on his colorful resume.

His reading and booksigning is at 7 p.m., Thursday, January 21, 2010 at BookPeople, on the corner of West 6th and North Lamar.

Torture at Guantanamo Theme of This Year’s Keene Prize for Literature

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, a graduate of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the 2009 Keene Prize for Literature for her play titled “Lidless,” a poetic treatment of the issue of torture at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. Cowhig will receive $50,000 and an additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Cowhig’s play was chosen out of 58 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. In the play, a former Guantanamo detainee dying of liver disease journeys to the home of his female interrogator to demand reparation for the damage she wreaked on his body and soul. It recreates the traumatic experience of interrogation and moves toward reconciliation between its protagonists.

Torture at Guantanamo Theme of This Year's Keene Prize for Literature

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, a graduate of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the 2009 Keene Prize for Literature for her play titled “Lidless,” a poetic treatment of the issue of torture at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. Cowhig will receive $50,000 and an additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Cowhig’s play was chosen out of 58 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. In the play, a former Guantanamo detainee dying of liver disease journeys to the home of his female interrogator to demand reparation for the damage she wreaked on his body and soul. It recreates the traumatic experience of interrogation and moves toward reconciliation between its protagonists.