James W. Foley University of Massachusetts Memorial Prize
The James W. Foley University of Massachusetts Memorial Prize is meant to honor the conviction and courage of alumnus James Wright Foley. Jim studied fiction and literature in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1999 until 2003. In his years as a student here, he dedicated himself to working with marginalized communities, helping others to find their voices. Later he became a freelance journalist on the front lines in Libya and Syria, where he was kidnapped and horrifically executed by the so-called Islamic State in August of 2014.
The James W. Foley University of Massachusetts Memorial Prize seeks to support the work of writers who express a political awareness and sensitivity in their prose, and whose concerns extend beyond the limits of their particular circumstances and home language. The prize will be awarded annually to a current MFA candidate, based on a sample of prose, in the form of an honorarium generated by an endowment (we plan to create a current use scholarship if the goal of creating an endowment is not met.)
The memorial prize is a way to keep Jim among us. It is a way of reckoning with the loss of a beloved writer and friend, and of inviting the stories Jim left behind to continue in conversation with stories yet to be written.
THE COW HEAD REVELATIONS
Jim’s thesis, The Cow Head Revelations, is a novel in stories, in discrete and accreting passages, a narrative of a 23-year old man from New Hampshire teaching kids from the barrio in Phoenix. The teacher is James Foley. With rare and uncanny candor, he calls himself by name. He shrinks the distance and difference between writer and reader and asks that the reader bear it—that the reader live with and through the story. Here is an excerpt from Jim’s manuscript:
I told Dennis about Patricia. How Patricia was this little girl who knew how to get to you…I told Dennis how Patricia’s brother had been shot over drugs. How I imagined the size and shape of the gun that had been used and whether the drugs had been packaged in plastic or paper. The story was like watching the war on the news, terrible and adrenaline at the same time…Dennis nodded, his blue eyes gone red but his mouth set in thought. There were many desires running through me as we were sitting in the lawn chairs listening to the cars passing outside the apartment complex. I wanted to be a good teacher. I wanted to reach out to kids like Patricia, kids who never had anything their whole lives. I wanted to be respected by them. I wanted a pretty girl like Minerva.
The feeling is of urgency, humility. The work is in part an expression of a wish to be known. To be felt with. Accompanied. Jim invited us to care for those he cared for, to be disheartened by them, confounded, lifted up, amused. He invited us to be bound by a shared desire to matter to others.
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