Houston poets are recognized by the Texas Institute of Letters 2023 Literary Awards

Jasminne Mendez, winner of the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2023 Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for Best Book of Poetry / Courtesy of JasminneMendez.com

The Texas Institute of Letters recently announced the winners of its annual Literary Awards – writers whose works represent “the best of Texas literature,” as described by the organization’s president Diana López.

“Each year, the TIL recognizes the best of Texas writing in a variety of genres that includes fiction, poetry, nonfiction, scholarly writing, design, and short form works. Many thanks to our judges for carefully considering the entries,” said López in a statement. “This year’s winners demonstrate the wonderful talent and diversity of writers with Texas roots.”

Eligibility for the 2023 awards required that “the author was born in Texas or has lived in Texas for at least five consecutive years at some time. A work with subject matter that substantially concerns Texas is also eligible,” according to online guidelines. The work must have been published in 2022.

Winners will collectively receive more than $27,000 in prizes, to be presented at the Texas Institute of Letters Awards Ceremony in Corpus Christi on April 29, 2023.

Jasminne Mendez, a multigenre writer and translator based in Houston, is the winner of the 2023 TIL Award for Best Book of Poetry for City Without Altar (Noemi Press).

City Without Altar is a poetry collection and play in verse that explores what it means to live, love, heal and experience violence as a Black person in the world. The titular play in verse that sits at the center of the book seeks to amplify the voices and experiences of victims, survivors and living ancestors of the 1937 Haitian Massacre that occurred along the northwest Dominican/Haitian border during the Trujillo Era. Between the scenes of the play are “interludes” that explore a different kind of “cutting” and what it means to feel othered because of illness, disability and blackness.

Noemi Press
Courtesy of Noemi Press

Mendez was also named a finalist for the 2023 TIL Best Young Adult Book Award for Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American (Piñata Books), a memoir of her coming-of-age experiences in the United States as an Afro-Latina. A winner of Arte Público Press’ 2021 Salinas de Alba Award for her debut children’s book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Público Press), Mendez also recently published her first middle grade novel in verse, Aniana del Mar Jumps In, released on March 14, 2023.

Acclaimed Houston poet Ayokunle Falomo was recognized as a finalist in the 2023 TIL Best Book of Poetry category for his collection, AfricanAmeriCan’t (Flowersong Press).

Ayokunle Falomo, finalist in the 2023 TIL Literary Awards

“In AfricanAmeriCan’t, Falomo tenderly traces his body on the American political map. The exciting inventiveness of language wills Diasporic histories into poetic form,” said poet and filmmaker Loyce Gayo, in a statement on the book. “This feat of a project gives those of us tussling with the many failures of nation permission to own and fully embrace a boundless grief, a righteous rage, and bountiful stillness.”

A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell, and the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Falomo has been anthologized and published by Houston Public Media, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Texas Review, New England Review, Write About Now, and others.

Houston writer J. Estanislao Lopez was named a finalist in the 2023 TIL Award for First Book of Poetry for We Borrowed Gentleness (J. Alice James Books) – praised as a “compelling debut collection” that contains an “unsentimental directness,” in a review by David Woo.

J. Estanislao Lopez, finalist in the 2023 TIL Literary Awards

“[Lopez] knows that words, however meager, help to counter life’s irremediable violence,” wrote Woo in his review. “For Lopez, the details begin in Texas, with a father who crossed the river from Nuevo Laredo …”

Lopez’s poetry has been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and Poetry Magazine, and he earned an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers.

Founded in 1936, the Texas Institute of Letters is a nonprofit honor society that aims to celebrate Texas writers, as well as literary works with ties to the Lone Star State. According to a press release, its elected members include Texas-based writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Man Booker Prize, Academy Award, International Latino Book Award, Americas Award, Lambda Literary Award, MacArthur Fellowship, and Guggenheim Fellowship.

TIL’s long history of supporting and honoring Texas literature through various author awards can be traced to 1939, as archived on its website.

A complete list of 2023 TIL Literary Award winners can be found here.

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