For much of the world, turning the page from 2020 to 2021 couldn’t have come soon enough. The Covid pandemic has exhausted the collective populace—psychologically, physically, economically, politically, and spiritually. The grief and pain seem endless. There are days in the hospital when I’m just staggered by the amount of tragedy that life deems permissible.
So it hasn’t been surprising that the many of the submissions to BLR have reflected this reality. We read scores of poems, essays, and stories that probed the various contours of the pandemic. Two essays, in particular, stood out to us and are published in this issue of BLR. They bring the perspectives of a Chinese high school student and a Black family physician caught in the myths, fears, and prejudices that characterized the earliest stages of the U.S. pandemic.
Christine Chen was studying in an American high school when the outbreak of Covid-19 in China prevented her from returning home during school vacation. Her essay “Houseguest” is raw look at displacement, from the perspective of a promising young writer.
Shanda McManus finds that she’s largely on her own when Covid-19 comes to her small community practice. She’s on her own to figure out PPE, testing protocols, and Covid triage. She’s on her own to grapple with embedded racism and society’s wobbly and belated reckoning. Her essay “Breathing” captures a full year of the pandemic in succinct and gripping prose.
Fiction is often described as the great lie that tells the truth. In this year’s fiction contest, both the winning and honorable mention stories deal with Covid-19. “Tattoos” by Galen Schram was selected by Dan Chaon for the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. Schram is a physical therapist who spent two months in the ICU with Covid patients in the spring of 2020. The fictionalized physical therapist in “Tattoos” works to connect with his patients in the ICU, while struggling with his own mental health. Honorable Mention for fiction was awarded to Benjamin Kessler. In his story “Admonition,” a rookie public health worker draws the short straw and is sent to warn a cranky recluse about the pandemic.
The Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, judged by Sandeep Jauhar, was awarded to Amy V. Blakemore. Her essay, “My Tapeworm,” is a powerful portrayal of a family’s profound denial of her eating disorder. Justine Feron’s essay, “Viable,” which probes some of the deeper meanings of motherhood, was awarded Honorable Mention.
“Never the Less” by Saleem Hue Penny was selected by Jen Bervin for the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry. His masterful poem grapples with identity, recognition, society, poetic structure, and the current events of 2020. Eileen Elizabeth Waggoner’s delicate jewel, “Yellowthroat,” was given Honorable Mention.
The BLR gives thanks to our judges—Dan Chaon, Sandeep Jauhar, and Jen Bervin—for their time and wise counsel in selecting the 2021 winners of the BLR Literary Prizes. We also want to express our sincere gratitude to Jan and Marica Vilcek for supporting the BLR Poetry Prize for more than a decade. We are honored to announce that, starting next year, the poetry prize will be the John and Eileen Allman Prize for Poetry, sponsored by BLR board members Lin Lombardi and Lesmah J. Fraser in honor of poet John Allman.
We are deeply grateful to the Goldenberg and Buckvar families for their ongoing support of the BLR fiction and nonfiction prizes. Their support has nurtured countless literary careers.
In addition to new vaccines and new political winds, 2021 also marks the start of BLR’s 20th anniversary. We are thrilled to celebrate this milestone with a series of online events over the course of the year, as well as an expanded anniversary issue in the fall of 2021. We invite you to visit our brand new website (www.BLReview.org) to see the events, as well as our collection of writings, videos, interviews, roundtable discussions, and reading guides. You can pick up any of our back issues—either the kind that arrive in the mail or the kind that arrive on your e-reader. Please also check out @BLReview on your favorite social media platforms.
We offer a heartfelt thank you and semi-farewell to Jerry Lowenstein, who has been our Senior Nonfiction Editor from BLR’s inception. One of my clearest memories from 2001 is the two of us sitting in my minuscule exam room in the Bellevue Medical Clinic—nephrologist and internist—poring over paper samples, font styles, cover stock, trying to make heads or tails of how to create a literary journal in the midst of a bustling city hospital. Jerry has accomplished so much over these twenty years, not least of which was to help the Bellevue Literary Press get off the ground, for which he continues to serve as publisher. Happily, this is only a semi-farewell, as Jerry will stay on as a BLR reviewer so that he can continue in the company of the writers’ voices on whom he’s come to depend. You’ll read more about that in his Editor’s Note on the following pages.
BLR is thrilled to welcome Damon Tweedy as our new Nonfiction Editor. Damon is a psychiatrist at Duke University, and an immensely thoughtful writer. He is the author of the best-selling book, Black Man in a White Coat. We are also excited to welcome Abba Belgrave as our new Assistant Poetry Editor. Abba is an accomplished poet, and her poems have been published in BLR as well as other journals.
Please enjoy this issue—our fortieth!—of BLR. We are so fortunate to have sustained a community of readers, writers, reviewers, and editors for this long. We are deeply grateful to all of our donors and board members whose support has allowed BLR to thrive and grow, and look forward to the next forty issues.