The 2020 Townsend Prize Finalists: Books & Bios

Brass: A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, who is at once both worldly and naïve, a married man who left Albania to chase his dreams—and wound up working as a line cook in Waterbury, Connecticut. Back when the brass mills were still open, this bustling factory town drew one wave of immigrants after another. Now it’s the place they can’t seem to leave. Elsie, herself the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, falls in love quickly, but when she learns that she’s pregnant, Elsie can’t help wondering where Bashkim’s heart really lies, and what he’ll do about the wife he left behind.

Seventeen years later, headstrong and independent Luljeta receives a rejection letter from NYU and her first-ever suspension from school on the same day. Instead of striking out on her own in Manhattan, she’s stuck in Connecticut with her mother, Elsie—a fate she refuses to accept. Wondering if the key to her future is unlocking the secrets of the past, Lulu decides to find out what exactly her mother has been hiding about the father she never knew. As she soon discovers, the truth is closer than she ever imagined. Brass is published by Penguin Random House.

Credit: S. Wise

Xhenet Aliu’s debut fiction collection, Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Barcelona Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MLIS from the University of Alabama. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, she was born to an Albanian father and a Lithuanian American mother. More information about Xhenet Aliu is on her Website.

“When I first started writing seriously, I was panicked because I thought a person like me, with no pedigree and not a cosmopolitan bone in my body, had no stories to tell. I didn’t think people wanted to read about things like poor and working-class people, recent immigrants who weren’t success stories, post-industrial factory towns, because I so infrequently encountered them myself as a reader. Eventually I realized that was exactly the reason I was writing this story.”


The Wrong Heaven: In The Wrong Heaven, anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects come to life, angels appear and disappear. In the title story, a school teacher’s life takes an unexpected turn when the plastic Jesus and Mary lawn ornaments she buys start talking to her. In “Horse,” the story’s narrator decide to join her best friend, who is undergoing regular IVF injections, with injections of her own―ones that will transform her into a horse. And in “Alternate,” a woman is convinced that all she needs to revive a stagnant relationship is the perfect poster of the Dalai Lama. While some of the worlds Bonnaffons creates are more recognizable than others, all of them are decidedly strange. Hugely funny, bold, and probing, these stories lay bare the heart of our deepest longings and mysteries. The Wrong Heaven is published by Little Brown & Company.

Credit: B. Lauback

Amy Bonnaffons’s works has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Kenyon Review, among other places, and has been read on NPR’s “This American Life.” She is a founding editor of 7×, an online journal that publishes collaborations between writers and visual artists. Bonnaffons holds an M.F.A. from New York University, and currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. More information about Amy Bonnafons is on her Website.

“During the drafting process, I try to keep all possibilities open—my best work has come when I’ve felt the what if…? itch and followed it, without skepticism or self-censorship. What if that Jesus statue came to life? What if a woman could turn herself into a horse? What if the Angel of Death is a stone cold hunk? The real engine of the story is character—but I try not to limit myself when imagining how that character might express her desires and inner conflicts, or what outer possibilities she might encounter.”


The Day’s Heat: Set in the early sixties against the backdrop of impending national integration, The Day’s Heat follows Lee James, a dark-skinned, Catholic, Lebanese girl who comes to a small South Georgia town. Lee has already seen the partiality shown her younger, fairer sister Ray, and experienced prejudice even in the Catholic church that she dutifully attends with her two daughters, who both have their father’s blonde hair and blue eyes.

She must confront the prejudices of her husband’s family and the community toward her nationality and religion, at a time when there were no birth control pills, no Internet, no mobile phones, and when a woman’s place was in the home. Lee struggles with her own growth as a wife, mother, and an individual in an unfavorable place and time. The Day’s Heat is published by Impress Books.

Roberta George was born in Bisbee, Arizona, and also lived in California and Texas. Founding editor of Snake Nation Press, an independent publishing company based in Valdosta, Georgia, George has taught English and creative writing courses at Florida State University, the Thomasville Cultural Center, and the Turner Center for the Arts in South Georgia. Mother to nine children, she earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in English from Florida State University and Valdosta State College, respectively. Her debut novel, The Day’s Heat, was the winner of the 2019 Georgia Author of the Year Award for literary fiction, and the 2017 Impress Books Prize for New Writers out of the United Kingdom. Roberta George lives with her third-generation Lebanese husband in Valdosta, Georgia.


The Care & Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls: The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives. Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with, and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband, Proctor, are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from being one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.

As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their siter’s teenage daughters. What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and core of an American family in a story that is as gripping as it is important. The Care & Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is published by Berkley Books.

Credit: B.J. Heath

Anissa Gray is an Emmy Award-winning journalist at CNN Worldwide, responsible for helping to guide coverage of some of the most consequential stories of our time. She began her career at Reuters as a reporter based in New York, covering business news and international finance. Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Gray studied English and American literature at New York University. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her wife. More information about Anissa Gray is on her Website.

“At the heart of the novel, there’s an examination of the many hungers that drive us, whether for good or ill. With Viola, it manifests through a literal eating disorder. Althea experiences a sense of emptiness that becomes apparent through the crimes she commits. So, taken together, you have these women who’ve endured losses and betrayals, and each one is trying to fill those hollow places. That sense of emptiness and the search for fulfillment are central in the life of all of the characters.”


The Vain Conversation: Inspired by true events, The Vain Conversation reflects on the 1946 lynching of two black couples in Georgia from the perspective of three characters—Bertrand Johnson, one of the victims: Noland Jacks, a presumed perpetrator: and Lonnie Henson, a witness to the murders as a ten-year-old boy. Lonnie’s inexplicable feelings of culpability drive him in a search for meaning that take him around the world and ultimately back to Georgia, where he must confront Jacks and his own demons, with the hopes that doing so will free him from the grip of the past.

In The Vain Conversation, Anthony Grooms seeks to advance the national dialogue on race relations. With complexity, satire, and sometimes levity, he explores what it means to redeem, as well as to be redeemed, on the issue of America’s race violence and speaks to the broader issues of oppression and violence everywhere. The Vain Conversation is published by Story River Books at The University of South Carolina Press.

Credit: J.D. Scott

Anthony Grooms is the author of Bombingham: A Novel, and Trouble No More: Stories, both winners of the Lillian Smith Book Award for Fiction. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, he has taught writing and American literature at universities in Ghana and Sweden, and, since 1994 at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. More information about Anthony Grooms is on his Website.

 “It sounds strange to say about a novel about a lynching, but first and foremost, I want readers to be entertained. That is to say, I want them to become fully immersed in the world of the characters, to be removed from the present to the time of the novel. Then I want them to feel deeply for all of my characters, victims and perpetrators alike. Only in this way can they find a broad empathy with the human condition. Finally, I would like them to be provoked to think about our history and how it manifests today.”


The Magnetic Girl: In rural Georgia, two decades after the Civil War, fourteen-year-old Lulu Hurst reaches high into her father’s bookshelf and pulls out an obscure book, The Truth of Mesmeric Influence. Deemed gangly and undesirable, she wants more than a lifetime of caring for her disabled baby brother, Leo, with whom she shares a profound and supernatural mental connection. Lulu begins to “captivate” her friends and family controlling their thoughts and actions for brief moments at a time. After Lulu convinces a cousin she conducts electricity with her touch, her father sees a unique opportunity. He grooms his tall and indelicate daughter into an electrifying new woman: The Magnetic Girl. Lulu travels the Eastern seaboard, captivating enthusiastic crowds by lifting grown men in parlor chairs and throwing them across the stage with her “electrical charges.”

As she delves into the mysterious book’s pages, Lulu discovers keys to her father’s past and her own future―but how will she harness its secrets to heal her family? Gorgeously envisioned and based on a true story, The Magnetic Girl is set at a time when the emerging presence of electricity raised suspicions about the other-worldly gospel of Spiritualism, and when women’s desire for political, cultural, and sexual presence electrified the country. The Magnetic Girl is published by Hub City Press.

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir. Handler writes essays and nonfiction features that have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. More information about Jessica Handler is on her Website.

“[The Magnetic Girl is about] girl power. On one level, she [Lulu] lifted men in chairs, and she transmitted electrical or magnetic power through objects. But the other idea of girl power is how and when does a teenage girl, or woman for that matter, decide that she has got the power to make decisions? It’s about power over others, real or imagined. But really, it’s about power over your own future.”


Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan: In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider. A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that the family’s luck is about to change, excitedly prepares her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance. Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan is published by Ballantine Books.

Credit: I. Kamal Wasti

Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the 2016 Townsend Prize for Fiction in and the Karachi Literature Festival-Embassy of France Prize. Her TEDx Talk is about regrets and second chances. Kamal’s award-winning work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Catapult, and Literary Hub. More information about Soniah Kamal is on her Website.

“I want readers, no matter which culture they’ve grown up in, to realize that we may seem very different and people may want to make us look at our differences, but we really—in our emotions, our desires, our hearts—we all really want to live a normal life where we are happy with the partners we choose, where we respect each other, where we can be friends with people from across classes and boundaries. I just would love readers to see the similarities within all of us rather than the differences. And to, of course, see Pakistan as just another place where they can come visit.”


Wild Milk: Wild Milk is like Borscht Belt meets Leonora Carrington; it’s like Donald Barthelme meets Pony Head; it’s like the Brothers Grimm meet Beckett in his swim trunks at the beach. Over the course of 24 tales, readers meet the woman who loses her baby in the blizzard created when his caretaker begins to snow; the woman who marries Poems; the woman who becomes a tree to float her giant daughters to safety; and the woman who does not eat the child. With stories that reveal just how much “the present is thick with the past” and “in which laughter is sometimes the only response to sorrow, beauty is strange, and love is fierce and undending,” Wild Milk sounds an unusual, yet deeply resonant universal chord. In other words, this remarkable collection of stories is unlike anything else you’ve read. Wild Milk is published by Dorothy Project.

Sabrina Orah Mark grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She earned a BA from Barnard College, Columbia University, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia. She is the author of the book-length poetry collections The Babies (2004), winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize chosen by Jane Miller, and Tsim Tsum (2009), as well as the chapbook Walter B.’s Extraordinary Cousin Arrives for a Visit & Other Tales from Woodland Editions. Orah Mark lives in Athens Georgia with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons. Wild Milk is her debut story collection. More information about Sabrina Orah Mark is on her Website.

“I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.”


Dixie Luck: Set in locales from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the Atlantic Coast, the short stories in Dixie Luck feature a literary study of characters who try to stay honest and upbeat in the face of stacked odds. From a salesman who tries to look on the bright side of a product promotion that deals with disaster preparation; to a gambler who cannot find the right words to say to the woman he loves, taking a good day at the racetrack as a sign he is still heading in the right direction with her; the people populating the pages of Dixie Luck present vivid portraits of the optimistic Southerner in a variety of guises, with the cities and towns they inhabit holding their own version of good fortune.

Anchoring the story collection is the Faulkner Society’s gold-medal-winning novella Terminal, a tale that finds a husband and wife reuniting in hopes of finding one final cashout at the windows. Dixie Luck is published by Mercer University Press.

Andy Plattner is a graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. A former horse racing journalist hailing from Lexington, Kentucky, he has published four other books, including the Flannery O’Connor Award winning story collection, Winter Money; A Marriage of Convenience; Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey, winner of the Dzanc Books Mid-Career Award and the Castleton Lyon Book Award; and A History of the Run for the Roses, a chronicle of the evolution of the Kentucky Derby and a finalist for the Castleton Lyon Book Award. Plattner’s short fiction has been published in numerous journals including The Paris Review, Sewanee Review, and The Southern Review. He has taught fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, Kennesaw State University, Emory University, and the University of Tampa. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


Fire Sermon: Can I sing about what’s waiting on the far side of fidelity? The wide door-swing, the unfurling sky?—Married twenty years to Thomas and living in Nashville with their two children, Maggie is drawn ineluctably into a passionate affair while still fiercely committed to her husband and family. What begins as a platonic intellectual and spiritual exchange between writer Maggie and poet James transforms into an emotional and erotically charged bond that challenges Maggie’s sense of loyalty and morality, drawing her deeper into the darkness of desire. Using an array of narrative techniques and written in spare, elegant prose, Jamie Quatro gives us a compelling account of one woman’s emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual yearnings — unveiling the impulses and contradictions that reside in us all. A daring debut novel of obsession, lust, and salvation, Fire Sermon is a tour-de-force that charts with bold intimacy and immersive sensuality the life of a married woman in the grip of a magnetic affair. Fire Sermon is published by Grove Press.

Credit: S. Alvarez

Jamie Quatro’s debut collection, I Want to Show You More, was a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013, an Indie Next pic, an O Magazine summer reading pick, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize. Quatro’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Tin house, McSweeney’s, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. Quatro teaches in the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and lives with her husband and four children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. More information about Jamie Quatro is on her Website.

“While I was drafting the book, I didn’t know why I was writing about the things I did. I only felt a sense of urgency. I couldn’t not write it. Now that it’s come into the world at this particular cultural moment, I hope Fire Sermon might become part of the ongoing dialogue related to the sexual empowerment of women.”