They tell stories about their lives before prison, about the conditions inside, and about the many places their imaginations take them.
For the last three years, Austin literary magazine American Short Fiction (ASF) has sponsored a contest for incarcerated writers in Texas. A group of writers at the Connally Unit, in Kenedy, Texas, came up with the name: The Insider Prize. Each year ASF receives dozens of essays and short stories from men and women in prisons and jails across the state, some handwritten and others produced on typewriters. They tell stories about their lives before prison, about the conditions inside, and about the many places their imaginations take them.
In April, as ASF prepared to share the good news with the winners and finalists, they learned that finalist Timothy Bazrowx had died at a prison hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. He was sixty-three. Through three books and countless shorter pieces, according to ASF, Bazrowx had cultivated an “incisive, vivid, and frequently hilarious style, which he didn’t abandon even as his home became a deathtrap.”
Bazrowx wrote to one correspondent that in prison, “sickness runs like a crazy horse through a flower bed.”
The winners of this year’s Insider Prizes were selected by guest judge Justin Torres, whose award-winning 2011 novel We the Animals has proven popular among writers behind bars.
In the fiction category, Torres selected “That Place on Daniel Island” by F. R. Martinez. Martinez also won in the fiction category last year, when Joyce Carol Oates selected his story “Mother’s Son.” This new piece is told entirely in dialogue, and Torres wrote that it “feels so alive, to not just the syntax and rhythms of everyday speech, but also to the very need for dialogue itself. Talking is a way to both dig up trouble and put it to rest. The two characters are talking from two very different sides of a shared experiences—marriage, incarceration—and the effect is quite moving.”
In the memoir category, Torres selected “The Promise” by Steven Perez. “What I loved most about this piece,” Torres wrote, is “that the story moves beyond the narrative of the gruesome attack that serves as the inciting incident to raise important questions about witnessing, responsibility, codes of conduct, failed guardianship—all the systemic issues that foster and allow for prison violence. It is tremendously well written.”
The memoir runner-up this year was “My Time Paradox,” by Jacob Jills, which Torres called a “real achievement in prose style” that “provoked an eerie claustrophobic feeling while reading.” The fiction runner-up this year was “Classic Rock,” by John Rodgers, which Torres called “troubling, funny, and hazed with a kind of dreamlike nostalgia.”
All of the winning stories can be read here: https://americanshortfiction.org/new/announcing-the-2020-winners-of-the-insider-prize/.
About the Organizers & this Year’s Judge
Emily Chammah and Maurice Chammah are assistant editors at American Short Fiction and co-direct the Insider Prize. Emily is a Fulbright Fellow and the winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Maurice is a staff writer at The Marshall Project, where he reports on the U.S. criminal justice system. His first book, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty will be published by Crown Books in January.
Justin Torres has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, Tin House, The Washington Post, Glimmer Train, Flaunt, and other publications, as well as nonfiction pieces in publications like The Guardian and The Advocate. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Justin’s novel We the Animals has been translated into fifteen languages and was recently adapted into a film. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library. The National Book Foundation named him one of the 2012’s 5 under 35. He was the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at UCLA.