When Leticia Tuset was a sophomore, she had no idea that the short story draft she wrote for an intermediate fiction class at UNC would become a piece recognized by the North Carolina Writers’ Network.
Now in her senior year, the Morehead-Cain scholar was given an honorable mention for her short story "Close" earlier this month.
The honorable mention is from the Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize contest, an annual literary competition open to any Black writer whose primary residence is in North Carolina.
The contest was created when UNC alumnus and North Carolina native Cedric Brown reached out to the North Carolina Writers’ Network. He wanted the award to encourage Black writers in the state.
Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, said the competition is open to writers regardless of their credentials.
“One of (Brown’s) goals in creating this contest with us was to try to convey, as he put it, the rich and varied existence of Black North Carolinians," Southern said. "I think with this contest being as open as it is, to all sorts of writers, that’s a great way of identifying excellent writing from outside what may be considered mainstream literary circles.”
Tuset’s “Close” explores themes of family and identity, with a specific focus on unusual family dynamics. The main character, Essie, is a young girl struggling with an emotionally abusive mother. Essie craves intimacy and maternal connection, so she takes the initiative to make a change herself and “something pretty strange happens," Tuset said.
“Close” is set in Creedmoor, North Carolina, where Tuset attended school and church. She said Creedmoor is “a stereotypical small town” and greatly influenced how she thinks about human relationships and the South.
Tuset continued that her piece sought to shed light on ideas of intimacy and familial ties.
“The title of the story is 'Close,'” Tuset said. "And what is that, what does that mean? Like to be close to someone? Is it just physically, is it to be physically close? Is it just close because you’re related? Is it emotionally close, or even historically close?”
Though Tuset wrote the first draft of the story as a sophomore, she did not finalize the piece until the end of her junior year.
She said she was inspired by film director Quentin Tarantino and his unique way of building intensity.
Careful not to give away the ending, Tuset said the final scene is shocking and violent, which was precisely the criteria Jacinda Townsend, the final judge of the Jacobs/Jones contest, said she was looking for.
Townsend, the Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan, said she looked for stories that "punched me in the gut when I got to the end of them." She was impressed by the ending of Tuset's story.
"The dialogue and the end scene work I thought showed a writer with tremendous promise," Townsend said.
Tuset said she hopes for a career in the entertainment industry creating documentaries, screenwriting and directing feature films. Outside of her creative work, Tuset has also interned for the UNC Institute for the Environment and served as a fiction editor at Arts Everywhere.
Arts Everywhere is a culture-oriented campus organization that includes many smaller organizations, such as the online and print publication organization Short Story UNC, which Tuset was an active member of her junior year.
Reflecting on her years at UNC, Tuset said she believes she has been able to find a community of friends who mutually love and support each other.
Academically, Tuset said taking UNC courses about history and other parts of the world has expanded and developed her ways of thinking. UNC has also given Tuset the opportunity to pursue her creative passions, she said.
“The big shift is really embracing writing as a career, not just a dream of mine, but something I can actually do,” Tuset said.
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