Helene Wecker wins VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘The Golem and the Jinni’

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Helene Wecker has been named the winner of the 2014 Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award for "The Golem and the Jinni," a novel that blends elements of fantasy and historical fiction to tell the story of two magical creatures who arrive separately on the streets of 19th-century New York City.

Wecker will receive the award at VCU, where she will give a reading and participate in a roundtable discussion with VCU students and the public. The event will be held at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. in Richmond. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. For more information, go to www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event/.

Wecker was one of three finalists for the award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during a calendar year. The other finalists were "Snow Hunters" by Paul Yoon and "Fort Starlight" by Claudia Zuluaga.

"The Golem and the Jinni," published by HarperCollins, infuses Jewish and Arab folk mythologies to create a story of two supernatural creatures who find themselves brought together in 1899 New York City's bustling immigrant communities. In the Polish town of Konin, a corrupt kabbalist forms a woman from clay at the request of young Otto Rotfeld. When Rotfeld dies en route to New York, Chava, the golem, is left in a strange new world without master or purpose. The jinni Ahmad, a being of fire, is accidentally released from his long imprisonment inside a copper flask by a tinsmith in Manhattan's Little Syria. Far from their countries and cultures of origin and free for the first time, Chava and Ahmad wander the strange city, alone and alienated from its all-too-human protocols and prejudices, until the night they encounter one another.

The novel examines the burdens of history, identity and isolation against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York City, inviting readers to consider their own experiences of tradition and assimilation, finding and losing one's faith and following or ignoring the wishes of one's heart.

"The Golem and the Jinni," a New York Times best seller, has received many prominent awards, including the Nebula Award for Best Novel from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a 2014 Mythopoeic Award for Best Fantasy Adult Literature, and two Goodreads Choice Awards -- Best Debut Goodreads Author and Best Fantasy.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU MFA in Creative Writing program's year-long novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize. Travel expenses and lodging are also provided for the author and her agent and editor to attend an evening of events that focus on the creation, publication and promotion of each year's winning novel. 

The award is co-sponsored by VCU's Department of English, the VCU MFA Program in Creative Writing, the James Branch Cabell Library Associates Board, the Friends of VCU Libraries, VCU Libraries, VCU's Honors College, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and Barnes & Noble@VCU.

Nearly 110 novels were submitted for this year's prize. A universitywide panel of readers in addition to members of the Richmond community reduced the list to 14 semifinalists and ultimately three finalists. The finalists were then considered by a panel of judges consisting of Ramona Ausubel, author of "No One Is Here Except All of Us" and recipient of the 2013 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award; Bryan D. Dietrich, author of six poetry collections, most recently "The Monstrance;" and Robin Oliveira, critic, and author of the novels "I Always Loved You" and "My Name Is Mary Sutter."

Past winners of the award have also included Justin Torres for "We the Animals," David Gordon for "The Serialist," Victor Lodato for "Mathilda Savitch," Deb Olin Unferth for "Vacation," Travis Holland for "The Archivist's Story," Peter Orner for "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo," Karen Fisher for "A Sudden Country," Lorraine Adams for "Harbor," Michael Byers for "Long for This World," Isabel Zuber for "Salt" and Maribeth Fischer for "The Language of Good-bye."

The deadline for the 2015 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is Sept. 14 for  books published January through June 2014. For books published July through December 2013, the deadline is Jan. 14, 2015. For more information, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu.