It was a privilege last year to help announce the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Award longlist in a post you can read here and to attend the shortlist evening at The British Library. You can read about that evening here.
When I was asked by the lovely folk at Midas PR if I’d like to feature one of 2020’s longlisted books I immediately chose Surge by Jay Bernard because I hadn’t heard of the author before and wanted to find out more.
This year’s longlist comprises seven novels, three poetry collections and two short story collections:
- Surge – Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus)
- Flèche – Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber)
- Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic Books)
- Things we say in the Dark – Kirsty Logan (Harvell Secker, Vintage)
- Black Car Burning – Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus)
- Virtuoso– Yelena Moskovich (Serpent’s Tail)
- Inland – Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
- Stubborn Archivist – Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet)
- If All the World and Love were Young – Stephen Sexton (Penguin Random House)
- The Far Field – Madhuri Vijay (Atlantic Books)
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, Vintage)
- Lot – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)
Worth £30,000, it is one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes as well as the world’s largest literary prize for young writers. Awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the Prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama.
The 12 longlisted titles will be judged by a bumper guest panel chaired by Swansea University’s Professor Dai Smith CBE, including annual judge Professor Kurt Heinzelman, the award-winning writer and founder of Jaipur Literature Festival Namita Gokhale, acclaimed writer and 2011 winner of the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize Lucy Caldwell, the British-Ghanaian writer, poet and critic Bridget Minamore, celebrated writer and presenter of BBC Radio 3: The Verb Ian McMillan and national arts and culture journalist Max Liu.
The shortlist will be announced on the 7th April, followed by a British Library Event, London on the 13th May and Winner’s Ceremony held in Swansea on International Dylan Thomas Day, 14th May.
My choice of book for review, Surge by Jay Bernard, is published by Vintage imprint Chatto and Windus, part of the Penguin group, and is available for purchase through the links here.
*Shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award 2019*
*Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019*
*Shortlisted for Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2019*
*Winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry*
Jay Bernard’s extraordinary debut is a fearlessly original exploration of the black British archive: an enquiry into the New Cross Fire of 1981, a house fire at a birthday party in south London in which thirteen young black people were killed.
Dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, the fire was initially believed to be a racist attack, and the indifference with which the tragedy was met by the state triggered a new era of race relations in Britain.
Tracing a line from New Cross to the ‘towers of blood’ of the Grenfell fire, this urgent collection speaks with, in and of the voices of the past, brought back by the incantation of dancehall rhythms and the music of Jamaican patois, to form a living presence in the absence of justice.
A ground-breaking work of excavation, memory and activism – both political and personal, witness and documentary – Surge shines a much-needed light on an unacknowledged chapter in British history, one that powerfully resonates in our present moment.
My Review of Surge
A slim collection of poems concerning historical events including the 1981 New Cross Fire.
Now, as a white, heterosexual middle aged woman approaching 60 you’d think I have little in common with someone young enough to be my child who identifies as black and queer and likes to be described under the pronoun they, rather than he. You’d be completely wrong. Jay Bernard’s collection Surge spoke to the very heart of me and I feel privileged to have read it.
At less than 70 pages, Surge provided an uncomfortable and moving insight into a world of which I was mostly ignorant and unaware. I can’t decide whether the fire at New Cross, that so much of the writing refers to, more or less passed me by because I as at university and living a cocooned life, or whether, at the time, the loss of so many young black lives didn’t warrant the attention it deserved. Either way, in Surge Jay Bernard creates a vivid memorial to those lives lost that left me feeling deeply saddened and not a little ashamed. Surge is political and fierce and deserves to be read far and wide.
I loved everything about Surge, especially the structure of the work and the quality of the writing. I was challenged by some of the language, especially the more dialect words and felt this reflected the challenge endured by those represented in the pages of the collection, such as those spat upon by office workers in Patois, for example. I found the often fragmented layout and the use of blank space illustrated the lack of cohesion in society and lack of esteem in which the lives of non-white people can be held. Blank, in particular, exemplifies this so perfectly. It also seemed to echo the author’s personal disjointed identity. So much here in Surge made me think and brought me up sharply that it has depth belied by the slimness of the volume.
I was moved by the echoes of society and history I take for granted so that whispers of Peter and Jane Ladybird books, Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, religious ceremonies and so on all swirled around my reading to the extent that Jay Bernard has achieved exactly what they claim in their introduction; they might be haunted by the history but they are certainly haunting it back. Finishing reading Surge isn’t the end of the book. So many references sent me scurrying off to find out more, especially the notes at the end. I’m discomfited that, in spite of all the news coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire, I probably would never have heard of photographer Khadija Saye who died there without Jay Bernard’s writing.
I’ve read Surge several times over now and each time I return to it I find something new. Jay Bernard’s writing has engendered so many emotions in me as a reader. I was floored by the rawness of grief in + and -, angered and shamed by so many entries, and yet despite this I found it comforting to know Jay Bernard cares enough to have written Surge. It’s no surprise to me that Surge has been so critically acclaimed. I loved it.
About Jay Bernard
Jay Bernard is the author of the pamphlets Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (Tall Lighthouse, 2008), English Breakfast (Math Paper Press, 2013) and The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink Sweat & Tears Press, 2016), which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2017. A film programmer at BFI Flare and an archivist at Statewatch, they also participated in ‘The Complete Works II’ project in 2014, mentored by Kei Miller. Jay was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2005 and a winner of SLAMbassadors UK spoken word championship. Their poems have been collected in Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe, 2009), The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt, 2011), Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014) and Out of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poets (Bloodaxe, 2014).
You can find out more on Jay’s website.