Yemeni American Poet Threa Almontaser Wins First Maya Angelou Book Award

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Kansas City Public Library and the University of Missouri-Kansas City named poet Threa Almontaser as the winner of the first annual Maya Angelou Book Award on October 20, 2021. She was honored for her debut collection, The Wild Fox of Yemen.  

The Library, UMKC, and five other Missouri universities established the national award, which recognizes literary merit, how a writer and their work reflect a commitment to social justice, and how the work “serves to enrich the diversity of American literature.” Named for acclaimed, Missouri-born memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, it comes with a $10,000 stipend.   

Almontaser is a Yemeni American writer based in North Carolina. She said that writing should not only entertain but provoke — an action that can be essential to both social justice and inclusion.   

“Provocation can be that kindle of inspiration for someone who needed one more push to make a big change,” she said. “It’s an evoking, a calling forth, a radical presence.”  

The Wild Fox of Yemen moves between English and Arabic and examines the life of a young Muslim woman in New York, also moving between languages and cultures. Almontaser describes it as a love letter to her home country and the people who live there.  

In “Recognized Language” she writes from right to left, visually illustrating her own division. She includes transliterated bits of Arabic toward the end of the stanza:  


deep themselves bury words missing My  

soil American in  

boil blood mother’s my makes It  

sound wrong the with wail I when  

mouth my in  

reflection my like off little a feel I  

shrunk wa stretched door car a in  

accent the want I back them want I  

lugha songy-sing my back  

Arabic in abki wa adhak to want I   

bloodline my tasting hard down bite I  

form I phrase every in

 “I feel a responsibility toward the Yemeni community now more than ever to write, not just about our survival but our joys, too,” Almontaser said. “As for where the singular poems sit within this larger body of work, I’d say I’m influenced to write about both cultural differences and different cultures.”   

Carrie Coogan, the Library’s deputy director for public affairs and community engagement, said it’s just that sort of literary conversation between cultures and mutual awareness, with an eye toward equity, that the Library feels is so important.  

“Promoting reading, writing, and social justice are core to the mission of the Library,” Coogan said. “These things elevate our entire community, allowing us to explore, create, imagine, and grow.”   

Almontaser said this award provides the extra support she needed to continue meeting her responsibility to her communities, “to keep each other lit and lifted during whatever comes for us.”  

The award’s co-creator, author and UMKC associate professor Whitney Terrell, said that Maya Angelou’s work shows the crucial role literature plays in both shaping and critiquing our society.  

“My hope is this award will both reward authors who have spent their careers creating work that insists on social justice and inspire others to follow that same path,” Terrell said.  

Another co-creator, author and University of Missouri-Columbia professor Phong Nguyen, noted that the award is the first of its kind to incorporate literary merit and social justice.

The Maya Angelou Book Award attracted more than 100 initial entries, which a 14-person reading committee narrowed to five finalists. The committee consisted of two representatives each from the Library and the six participating universities.  

Guest judge, writer DeMaris B. Hill, made the final selection.   

Check out The Wild Fox of Yemen 
About the Maya Angelou Book Award