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Claire Tomkin

The 2005 Sophie Kerr Winner


Most college seniors will look back on their graduation ceremony as a day of pomp and circumstance culminating in a handshake and a diploma. For Claire Tomkin, 21, an English major at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $53,609. Tomkin’s portfolio of short stories earned her the largest undergraduate literary award in the country—the Sophie Kerr Prize—presented Sunday, May 22, during the College’s  2005 Commencement ceremonies.

The awarding of the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor,” has in recent decades been a highlight of the commencement ceremony at the 223-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $53,609 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world. Washington College has awarded more than one million dollars in prize money since it was first given in 1968, most often to writers of poetry and fiction. Scholarly and journalistic works, though less often selected, are given equal consideration. Tomkin’s winning submission was one of thirty portfolios entered in this year’s competition.

“This was a difficult choice,” said English Professor Richard Gillin, who presided over the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee’s deliberations. “The top level of submissions was as competitive as we’ve ever seen—in every genre. There was excellent scholarly work as well. This was an embarrassment of riches.”

Professor Gillin characterized Tomkin’s stories as demonstrating “a sharp sense of setting and tone, precise observation, and nuanced emotion,” adding, “they earn the reader’s attention.”

Professor Robert Mooney, a published fiction writer and the Director of the College’s creative writing program and O’Neill Literary House, served as Tomkin’s thesis advisor. Mooney shared Gillin’s enthusiasm for this year’s selection.

“In Tomkin’s work, the strange is familiar and the familiar is strange, artfully putting the reader off-balance and positioned for change,” he said. “Claire has extraordinary depth and breadth of vision. She knows story, she thinks in story, and she thinks deeply.”

Tomkin plans to become a teacher. She is the daughter of Francina Tomkin of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Sophie Kerr Prize: Return To Flatbush

By Claire Tomkin ’05

I walk through the turnstile at Church Avenue, and it is as if a portal has opened and I am in a community of ghosts, a world in which no one can see me until I see them. There is an old Chinese man sitting on a wooden crate peddling batteries, cassette tapes and hair scrunchies. “Bata-ries! Tapes! One Dollah!” he calls out with few bothering to glance at him as they walk in and out of the station doors. Suddenly our eyes connect…

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