The 31th Annual James Jones First Novel Fellowship has awarded first place and $10,000 to Beenish Ahmed of Detroit, MI. for her novel titled Every Song an Elegy. Ahmed was selected from 584 entries in the competition co-sponsored by the James Jones Literary Society and the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.
First runner-up is Raquel Z. Rivera of New Mexico for her novel The Song Cypher and will receive $3,000. Second runner-up is Bora Lee Reed of Berkley, CA, for her novel The Letter Writers. She will receive $2,000.
The James Jones First Novel Fellowship was established in 1992 to “honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination, and insight into modern culture as exemplified by (the writings of) James Jones.” Jones was the author of the National Book Award-winning novel From Here to Eternity as well as the novels Some Came Running and The Thin Red Line. It is awarded to an author of a first novel-in-progress.
Beenish Ahmed is a radio reporter at Michigan Radio. She covers criminal justice and has recently reported about how the pandemic caused justice to be delayed due to court backlogs and how a haphazard response to Covid in a Detroit-area jail caused many to effectively be denied vaccines.
A writer of fiction, Beenish is working on a novel inspired by her extensive reporting in Pakistan, as well as a collection of interconnected short stories about the experiences of Muslims in America.
She founded THE ALIGNIST to connect fact to fiction. The quarterly box subscription company connects international novels to international news and includes authentic recipes, ethically-sourced artisan ingredients, and fair-trade crafts.
Previously, Beenish has been a Spencer Education Reporting Fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, an education reporter at WNYC, and a Kroc Fellow at NPR.
As a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom, she earned an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies and wrote a dissertation tracking the shift in colonial-era students who abandoned dreams to serve the British Raj and became instead torchbearers of the independence movement. Beenish also holds a BA Creative Writing and Political Science from the University of Michigan. She is the proud daughter of Pakistani immigrants.
Raquel Z. Rivera is an author and singer-songwriter. She was awarded a 2022 City of Albuquerque UETF Residency that supports the completion of her first novel. Her fiction has been published in Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2010 (Editorial Campana 2012) and in a number of literary journals.
As director of the band Ojos de Sofia, she co-wrote and co-produced the concept album Las 7 salves de La Magdalena / 7 Songs of Praise for The Magdalene (2010), an imaginative neo-folk liturgy for Mary Magdalene that has been featured in NPR’s Alt.Latino, Radio France International, New York Daily News, and Latin Beat Magazine. A music scholar with a Ph.D. in Sociology, Rivera’s fiction and songs are the creative underbelly of her academic work. Author of New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and numerous scholarly articles, she is also co-editor of Reggaeton (Duke University Press 2009). Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she lived for almost two decades in New York City and now resides in New Mexico.
Bora Lee Reed is a writer, editor, and the communications director for UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and an MA in Theology from the Graduate Theological Union. Her novel, The Letter Writers, is inspired by her family’s experience fleeing North Korea as refugees during the Korean War. She lives in Berkeley, CA.
Final judges for the Fellowship were distinguished poets and authors Kwame Dawes, Colin Channer and Nancy McKinley.