Arts and Entertainment | Books

Joyce Carol Oates chooses winners of 4x4’s literary contest

Of the 166 student writers who submitted about 500 pieces to 4x4 magazine’s literary competition, three undergraduates’ stories rose to the top of the pile.

Author Joyce Carol Oates, who judged the competition, awarded first place to Rachel Cruz, GS ’14, for her story, “Made Men,” and awarded honorable mentions to Mahima Chablani, CC ’14, and Andrew Stoughton, CC ’16.

“Made Men” was one of 10 stories the 4x4 staff picked to send to Oates, who promptly responded with the winners in four hours. 

Cruz’s is a nonfiction piece about her father’s youth in Brooklyn. Cruz is currently applying to Master of Fine Arts programs to write creative nonfiction, and “Made Men” is her first major piece to be published. 

“As far as endings go, it was probably my favorite,” 4x4 Editor in Chief Sarina Bhandari, CC ’14 and a Spectator columnist, said of Cruz’s story. “With every sentence, I just wanted to know more. I think it’s a story that can really suck you in. Her command of language is also really exceptional.”

“I just started to think about what it must have been like for my father to come of age as an adolescent, and then as a father, in sort of just a violent environment,” Cruz said. The story she submitted was an excerpt from a longer piece she had written.

“I like to write in a way that makes true things sound fictional,” Cruz said, who shared that she experienced difficulty trying to capture life in Brooklyn without misrepresenting anyone’s actual experiences. “I was so excited. Just kind of astounded and really honored.” 

Stoughton submitted two stories to the contest, but it was “Up Glenwood Way” that won him the honorable mention.

“It was very surreal,” he said about his honorable mention. “There’s a lot of talent on campus here.” 

“I wanted to figure out how to write violence interestingly,” Stoughton said about his submission. The story is narrated by a young woman who is friends with three men, one of whom is mugged and has his father’s watch stolen. 

“It’s sort of just the way the group of friends then proceed to react to this act of violence,” Stoughton said. “I was very interested in the way we get emotionally attached to objects.”

Chablani initially wrote her piece, “White Squares,” for a fiction workshop. Though she can’t reveal much about the plot since it hinges on the ending, she did say that it’s “about a New Year’s Eve forever marred.”

“I would say that a lot of the story was shaped by what I was learning about in classes and people who I had encountered recently,” she said, adding that the ending didn’t occur to her until she had written for a while.  

“It’s hard to say what I was trying to do as much as what I was doing,” Chablani said. “It was the kind of story where I discovered my character and realized his intentions. ... This happens a lot to me when I’m writing—it’ll be 3 a.m. in Butler and I’ll have been writing for eight pages and I’ll realize that this story could not end another way.”

Cruz’s, Chablani’s, and Stoughton’s stories will all be published in 4x4’s first issue, coming out this spring. 

The magazine was formed by Bhandari and her co-editor, Aliza Polkes, CC ’14, last semester afer leaving Quarto in the wake of the creative writing department’s decision to use Quarto to showcase only the work of students in the department.

For student writers who still want to get involved in the literary magazine, 4x4 is accepting submissions for its upcoming spring issue until Feb. 28 and is  hosting an open mic event called “Signs & Signals” in collaboration with Sigma Nu on Feb. 13. 

David Salazar contributed reporting to this article.

arts@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 4x4 would be hosting the “Signs & Signals” event in collaboration with literary society Alpha Delta Phi. It is actual being held with the fraternity Sigma Nu. Spectator regrets the error.

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Victoria Wills posted on

Hi Spec! The 4x4 event this Thursday is being co-hosted by Sigma Nu, not Alpha Delta Phi! For anyone interested, it's at the Sigma Nu house at 8 pm.

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Columbia Spectator posted on

Thanks for pointing that out! We've now corrected the article above.

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