Crime story contest has a happy ending for Bangor teen who beat out professional writers

·5 min read

Jun. 9—Muhammad Drammeh was just looking for some feedback.

The Bangor High School junior hopes to be a published author some day and recently decided it might be a good idea to get his work in front of authors and others who could offer constructive criticism. So he looked online for writing contests to enter and found one he liked, the CrimeFlash Fiction Contest organized by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.

The feedback he got turned out to be positive, really positive. In fact, he was declared the contest winner out of more than 50 entrants, including many more experienced writers and published authors. He's the first teen to win an MWPA contest or award competing against adults. The literary organization announced the winner Thursday.

"I wanted to see what others thought of my skills. I fully expected to be rejected and really just wanted some feedback," said Drammeh, 17. "When I got the email (that he'd won) I just stared at my phone for a few minutes. I was in complete shock."

Contest judge Bruce Coffin, a Maine-based crime novelist, said he had no idea Drammeh was only 17 and in high school when he picked his piece, "Doghouse," as the winner. All the entries were judged blind, without any author information attached.

"His thinking and his writing are way beyond his years. Something tells me we'll be seeing a lot more from this young man," said Coffin, whose book "Within Plain Sight" won an MWPA Literary Award in 2021. "I can't remember writing anything that significant when I was his age."

As the contest winner, Drammeh gets to attend the MWPA's Maine Crime Wave conference on Saturday at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He'll get to read his piece in public and get to meet and chat with many Maine-based crime and mystery authors, including Paul Doiron, Chris Holm, Kathryn Miles and Katherine Hall Page.

Drammeh and the other entrants in CrimeFlash were asked to write 500 words or less and begin with a prompt written by Coffin: "Being buried alive was the most terrifying thing I could imagine, until today." Drammeh took the prompt and went on to write a first-person piece about an inmate reflecting on the isolation and hopelessness of repeated incarceration.

"I'm not scared of being buried alive anymore. I've already been buried, ten, one

hundred times over. They try to heal us. But they won't help us. Eyes clamped shut, they can

only feed us to the penitentiary, slide our caskets into its wide, grinning maw," Drammeh wrote near the end of the piece. "And once it is done with you, if it decides it is done with you, it spits you out and retreats into the shadow, and again it waits for you to choose. To continue the cycle, or break yourself in its gears."

Coffin said he was impressed with Drammeh's vivid imagery, his short, concise sentences and the fact that he took the prompt sentence and headed in an unexpected direction.

"His analogy of being buried alive to repeated incarcerations and what that would mean was thinking way outside the box," said Coffin.

Drammeh said that's exactly what he was aiming for, to take the prompt in a different direction. He said the idea to write about the hopelessness of being a repeated inmate stemmed from news reports he'd read and heard during the 2020 U.S. presidential election about the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. President Joe Biden had championed the passage of the law as a senator, and the law has since been criticized for radically increasing the number of imprisoned people, including people of color. The bill included money to build more prisons and required people convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

"I had become interested in the crime bill and its effects and consequences," said Drammeh. "I'm interested in the idea of how systems are put in place and what their consequences might be."

The CrimeFlash contest began in 2017, and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance has been presenting its Maine Literary Awards for at least 20 years, said Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the organization. During that time no individual teen has won an award competing against adults, Fay-LeBlanc said, though there are categories specifically for youth to enter. The MPWA has given its anthology award at least twice to books published by The Telling Room, a Portland-based organization that helps young writers develop, said Fay-LeBlanc, the former Telling Room director.

The runner up in the CrimeFlash contest was Rick Simonds, Maine-based columnist and author of the recent novel "Operation: Midnight" and other books. Honorable mention went to Amy Allen, an editor and art director at the Bangor Daily News and Bangor Metro magazine.

Drammeh said he's always been interested in telling stories and started writing in grammar school, mostly the kinds of stories that video games might be based on. In middle school, he strayed from writing and focused on other activities. But then during the pandemic, he began writing more and reading more literary fiction. He says his prose is at least partly influenced by fellow Maine writer Stephen King, but he tries to read a wide variety of books. He recently finished "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood and also enjoyed "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski.

But his interests are broader than writing. He's a member of his school's STEM Academy and the robotics team, besides being in the creative writing club.

He's currently working on some speculative fiction that address larger issues in society with allegories, including a fantasy book in which two worlds get combined, leading to an all-out war and the economic destination and collapse of two societies.

Though Drammeh wants to be a published author, he's also very interested in science. He's thinking he might go to college and focus on a job in the sciences. That way he could make a good income, enough to publish his books.

"I believe that science and literature are just two different ways of addressing the problems in the world," Drammeh said.