Mr. E. L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, envisioned a prize that would honor and support the pursuit of great American writing, and through his estate made possible the Keene Prize in Literature.
In establishing this prize, Mr. Keene hoped "to encourage the writing and publishing of good American Literature, to lend financial support to the creators of such literature, and to enhance the prestige and reputation in the world market of American writers both now and in the future." According to Mr. Keene's wishes, the recipient of this prize will be selected from among those who create "the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm."
In addition, the winner will be the student who demonstrates "the greatest artistic merit and narrative mastery of the English language and has shown the greatest promise of becoming a professional writer, as judged by the Scholarship Committee of the College of Liberal Arts."
Nouri Zarrugh gives voice to Libyans repressed by the reign of Muammar Gaddafi in his story “The Leader,” awarded the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature at The University of Texas at Austin.
Established in 2006 and named after a 1942 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts, the E.L. Keene Prize is one of the world's largest student literary prizes, awarding $50,000 each year to a student who creates “the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm.”
Zarrugh, a graduate writing student in The James A. Michener Center for Writers, drew inspiration for “The Leader” from his father’s stories about living in Libya.
“My story follows three generations of a Libyan family during the reign of Muammar Gaddafi, moving back and forth in time over the course of nearly 40 years as it traces the ways in which that regime’s violence and repression echoes through each member’s life,” Zarrugh said. “I wanted to write a story with everyday Libyans at the center, while still acknowledging the inescapable reach of violence and abusive power.”
As finalists, three graduate students from the Michener Center each received $17,000.
“Belle Ville,” by Tanya Ponton, is a story about a Baton Rouge lawyer who hopes to defend a trailer park woman against a wrongful death claim involving her sister. “The story was inspired by my family's long ancestry in Louisiana Bayou Country, as well as the unique legal challenges that gay couples face,” Ponton said.
Joanna Garner wrote “The Orange Garden,” a play that takes place in 1972 Iran, where a young Peace Corps volunteer is quickly swept into a dangerous romance and the growing fire of the Iranian revolution. “A story about the complicated ways we fall in love with people and places, the play spirals together Rumi's poetry, 1960s rock music, whirling dervishes and the lyricism of the Persian language,” Garner said.
Samantha Karas won for her sequence of poems, “Defiance, Colorado,” a family history of white settlers who intermarried with native Americans. The narrative begins in myth: the coyote wife who slips out of her human skin to go hunting; a boy sent to a Native American boarding school whose hair is cut off but grows back every night – and then emerges into the present without becoming less surreal.
Poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose are evaluated by the Scholarship Committee to select the student who demonstrates "the greatest artistic merit and narrative mastery of the English language and has shown the greatest promise of becoming a professional writer.”
“I know that there are so many incredibly talented writers who have come to UT as part of the Michener Center for Writers, the New Writers Project, and the departments of Radio-TV-Film and Theatre & Dance, so to receive this distinction is a bit surreal,” Zarrugh said.