2017 National Book Awards Longlists Include Writing Faculty Members Carol Zoref and Marie Howe

The National Book Foundation announced its longlists for the 2017 awards last week, and two of the nominees are writing faculty members at Sarah Lawrence College: Carol Zoref for her novel, Barren Island, and Marie Howe, selected for her poetry collection, Magdalene.

"The National Book Award is one of the highest honors a writer can receive. We are thrilled that our colleagues have received this recognition," said Brian Morton, director of the College’s MFA program in writing.

In 2015, Carol Zoref, Director of the Writing Center at Sarah Lawrence College, won an AWP (Association of Writers and Programs) Prize from its annual competition for the publication of new book-length works. Through this award she published Barren Island with the New Issues Press, an independent press associated with Western Michigan University. “Nominated for a National Book Award now,” said Zoref, “makes an amazing bookend for this novel, and one for which I’m thrilled to be selected.”

Barren Island is Zoref’s first novel. Released in February, it looks at the squalid and hardscrabble lives of Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, and African families that inhabit a factory island in New York’s Jamaica Bay. It’s a poignant story of the immigrant families who form a tight-knit community in an extremely harsh environment, and is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of immigrants. The story is told from the viewpoint of the fictional narrator, Marta Eisenstein, who gives a vivid picture of the island where the city’s dead horses and other large animals were rendered into glue and fertilizer from the mid-19th century until the 1930’s.

While Zoref can relate to the lives of her characters as the descendant of Jewish immigrants, the book is not based on her family’s story. She believes the story is particularly relevant now as the nation wrestles with conflict over issues of immigration.

Writing faculty member Marie Howe is the author of four volumes of poetry: Magdalene: Poems, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, What the Living Do, and The Good Thief. Magdalene is her most recent poetry collection. She is also the co-editor of a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Agni, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and The Partisan Review, among others.

Howe was the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014; recipient of the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poet Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Mary Ingram Bunting fellowship from Radcliffe College, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artist Foundation, and the Guggenheim.

Magdalene imagines the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene as a woman who embodies the spiritual and sensual, alive in a contemporary landscape— hailing a cab, raising a child, listening to the news on the radio. Between facing the traumas of her past and navigating daily life, the narrator of Magdalene yearns for the guidance of her spiritual teacher, a Christ figure, whose death she continues to grieve. Erotic, spirited, and searching for meaning, she is a woman striving to be the subject of her own life, fully human and alive to the sacred in the mortal world.

Five finalists in each category will be named on October 4, and the winner will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on November 15.

About Sarah Lawrence College

Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious, coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country. Sarah Lawrence is known for its pioneering approach to education, rich history of impassioned intellectual and civic engagement, and vibrant, successful alumni. In close proximity to the unparalleled offerings of New York City, the historic campus is home to an intellectually curious and diverse community.