2021 Firecracker Awards Citations

Read full citations for awards in the categories of Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Magazines/General Excellence, and Magazines/Best Debut.

This citation for the 2021 Firecracker Award winner in the category of fiction, selected by judges Natanya Ann Pulley, Irene Yoon, and Robert Yune, commemorates the book Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton, published by Soft Skull Press.

“Aoko Matsuda’s short story collection, Where the Wild Ladies Are, takes impressive risks and showcases a range of narrative engagement. Its tone can shift from poignant to hilarious to meditative, often within the same story. There’s a masterful sense of breadth as the author subsumes and transforms Japanese folktales in unexpected ways. In addition to folklore, the collection makes room for advice columns, trickster foxes, unfettered feminist rage, corporate satire, supernatural aromatherapy, body horror, postmodern loneliness, and much more.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the translator’s efforts: so much of this collection’s clever, sharp humor and nuanced mannerisms is difficult to translate. Doing so required extraordinary care and precision. Equally challenging is balancing the playful and imaginative tenor of a folktale reimagined—carrying both the tradition and the contemporary reading at once.

In the end, Where the Wild Ladies Are possesses a special alchemy that leads to an unforgettable reading experience. As judge Irene Yoon said, ‘We loved how this book trains the reader and invites a new way of seeing the world. You find yourself seeing figures that are often overlooked or hidden.’”


This citation for the 2021 Firecracker Award winner in the category of best debut magazine, selected by judges Charles Flowers, Keetje Kuipers, and Marcus Wicker, commemorates the literary magazine Lucky Jefferson.

“We’re intrigued by the earnest joyfulness and sense of celebration in these pages. Everything about Lucky Jefferson is fresh and generous. From the content to the open-door vision articulated in the editor’s notes, this is a magazine interested in the momentum and power of diverse voices–and in creating a beautiful space in which those voices can flourish. A great read and a truly excellent teaching tool, the magazine uses discussion questions and writing prompts alongside the creative work to make space for conversation in a new way. We’re impressed by the happy pluckiness of this new journal, and we look forward to reading it for years to come.”


This citation for the 2021 Firecracker Award winner in the category of poetry, selected by judges Sarah Gambito, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Malcolm Tariq, commemorates the book The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed, published by Coffee House Press.

“In The Malevolent Volume, Justin Phillip Reed offers multiple realities and their consequences. Challenging our thinking, these poems consider the uses of horror: through the page, we experience what it’s like to be both haunted and that which haunts. In doing so, Reed doesn’t bend genre as much as he extends it with endless possibility.

A dextrous and epic music, this book faces down our combative and trespassed American moment. Almost every line is meant to be repeated slowly and held aloft for its heart-stopping craftsmanship. Studded with so many jeweled lines, we find, not absolution, but a complicated grace that will never, never accept your refusal.

Building, its lyric moves from baroque density to unraveling flight, bespeaking the urgency of our moment, the cruel bluntness of fascism, and its entrenchment in the foundational horror of national belonging, with its accompanying exclusions. ‘Is it like a life,’ this malevolence we endure? Justin Phillip Reed has written a book that beckons us to reread as we seek to understand our time, how much of it is promissory and how much apocalyptic.”


This citation for the 2021 Firecracker Award winner in the magazine category of general excellence, selected by judges Charles Flowers, Keetje Kuipers, and Marcus Wicker, commemorates the literary magazine Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America.

“The literary journal is thought to be a place from which to extend an invitation to conversation, an accessible space for community expression and exchange. Led by a collection of powerful female-identified editors, Mizna is the definition of that space. This beautiful and surprising magazine combines a strong international reach with a sense of rooted regionalism, working to create a nexus of vibrant and robust artistic intersection. Singing, emotionally compelling, intentional, and wrought, this is a magazine that is deeply alive, and we are made more alive by reading it.”


This citation for the 2021 Firecracker Award winner in the category of creative nonfiction, selected by judges E. J. Koh, Paul Lisicky, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, commemorates the book The Names of All the Flowers by Melissa Valentine, published by Feminist Press.

“In this stunning debut, Melissa Valentine traces an unforgettable narrative of growing up the daughter of a white Quaker man and his Black Southern wife. This is a memoir filled with grief and tenderness as it keenly navigates its way around her compelling devotion to her older brother, powerfully piecing together how tragedy could befall this community in the first place. By giving us a granular sense of one particular family, Valentine dramatizes the devastating effects of structural racism on self, relationships, a shared sense of the future. She takes us inside rooms, schools, parks, and on the streets of Oakland, where the divide between neighborhoods ‘…shape-shifts. It becomes people. It becomes substances…. Sometimes trauma is loud: Who do you think you are? it yells. Sometimes it’s so quiet you mistake it for yourself: Who do I think I am?’

Valentine gets to the fundamental truth about trauma–our capacity to experience unutterable pain is matched by our capacity to heal. This debut gives us language to define our experiences and relationships, our helplessness, rage, and collapse through constantly changing social conditions and environments. With formal curiosity and critical awareness, Valentine’s work bewilders and enthralls through the investigation of difficult questions about our lives beyond American imaginings.”