I’m thrilled to feature the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist on Linda’s Book Bag, not least because Surge by Jay Bernard, that I reviewed here, has made it through to the final six and I was lucky enough to attend the shortlist evening at the British Library last year. You can read about that evening here. Also, one of this year’s judges, Ian McMillan will, world events permitting, be one of the authors at the Deepings Literary Festival, where I live, next year.
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.
With life currently very different, this year the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prizewinner will be announced at 19:00 GMT Thursday 14th May in a virtual ceremony.
You can find all the latest news about this year’s award on Twitter by following #IDTP20 or @dylanthomprize.
The Swansea University website has all you need to know too.
Celebrating the Prize’s 15th anniversary the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is this year dominated by young and experimental poets:
- Surge – Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus)
- Flèche – Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber)
- Inland – Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
- If All the World and Love were Young – Stephen Sexton (Penguin Random House)
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, Vintage)
- Lot – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)
From Jay Bernard whose collection Surge addresses black radical British history against the backdrop of the Grenfell and Windrush scandals, to Hong Kong-born LGBTQ+ poet Mary Jean Chan for Flèche which tackles themes of multilingualism, queerness, psychoanalysis and cultural history and Belfast poet Stephen Sexton who explores grief through his love of Super Mario Games, each are recognised for their powerful, political and deeply personal debut collections.
In fiction three incredibly talented international writers are recognised, including Vietnamese-American poet and essayist Ocean Vuong who is celebrated for his international bestselling lyrical novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Belgrade-born Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht whose latest novel Inland paints a portrait of the American dream in the Wild West and Bryan Washington’s Lot which presents a collection of interlinked short stories deep-diving into his native Houston.
About the six shortlisted titles,who were judged by a bumper guest panel, the chair of the judges Swansea University’s Professor Dai Smith CBE said:
“The shortlist for 2020 ranges across the genres of poetry, short form fiction and the novel, and each work manages to address upfront the pressing social and personal concerns and dilemmas of our time. But what suddenly stands out in stark relief, amidst the overwhelming global nature of the crisis in which all humanity now finds itself struggling to cope, are the universal values which these disparate books highlight: compassion, empathy, courage against despair, anger against indifference, love in despite of everything. In a very dark time these six supremely talented young writers do what all such writers do: they light the way, and so must be read for all our sakes.”
Let’s take a look at each of the shortlisted works:
Surge – Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus)
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.
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.
Flèche – Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber)
Much like the fencer who must constantly read and respond to her opponent’s tactics during a fencing bout, this debut collection by Mary Jean Chan deftly examines relationships at once conflictual and tender.
Flèche(the French word for ‘arrow’) is an offensive technique commonly used in épée, a competitive sport of the poet’s teenage and young adult years. This cross-linguistic pun presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable (‘flesh’) and weaponised (‘flèche‘) in public and private spaces. Themes of multilingualism, queerness, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis and cultural history emerge by means of an imagined personal, maternal and national biography, spoken by a polyphony of female voices. The result is a series of poems that are urgent and hard-hitting as Chan keeps her readers on their toes, dazzling and devastating them by turn.
About Mary Jean Chan
Mary Jean Chan is a London-based poet, lecturer and editor from Hong Kong. Her debut poetry collection, Flèche(Faber & Faber), is the winner of the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry. Chan has twice been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and is the recipient of a 2019 Eric Gregory Award and the 2018 Poetry Society Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Chan currently lectures in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @maryjean_chan
Inland – Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life, biding her time with her youngest son – who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home – and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.
Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.
Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.
About Téa Obreht
Téa Obreht is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award, and Inland. She was born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. She currently lives in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @teaobreht.
If All the World and Love were Young – Stephen Sexton (Penguin Random House)
When Stephen Sexton was young, video games were a way to slip through the looking glass; to be in two places at once; to be two people at once. In these poems about the death of his mother, this moving, otherworldly narrative takes us through the levels of Super Mario World, whose flowered landscapes bleed into our world, and ours, strange with loss, bleed into it. His remarkable debut is a daring exploration of memory, grief and the necessity of the unreal.
About Stephen Sexton
Stephen Sexton lives in Belfast where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. His first book, If All the World and Love Were Young, is forthcoming from Penguin. Follow him on Twitter @ssexton02.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, Vintage)
Brilliant, heart-breaking, tender, and highly original – poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a sweeping and shattering portrait of a family, and a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born – a history whose epicentre is rooted in Vietnam – and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to the American moment, immersed as it is in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
About Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have also been featured in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. In 2019 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor of English at UMass-Amherst. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel. Visit his website for more information.
Lot – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)
Stories of a young man finding his place among family and community in Houston, from a powerful, emerging American voice.
In the city of Houston – a sprawling, diverse microcosm of America – the son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, weathering his brother’s blows, resenting his older sister’s absence. And discovering he likes boys.
This boy and his family experience the tumult of living in the margins, the heartbreak of ghosts, and the braveries of the human heart. The stories of others living and thriving and dying across Houston’s myriad neighbourhoods are woven throughout to reveal a young woman’s affair detonating across an apartment complex, a rag-tag baseball team, a group of young hustlers, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a local drug dealer who takes a Guatemalan teen under his wing, and a reluctant chupacabra.
Bryan Washington’s brilliant, viscerally drawn world leaps off the page with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family, and a life, Lot is about love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms.
About Bryan Washington
Bryan Washington is a National Book Award 5 Under 35 honouree and the author of the collection, Lot, and the forthcoming novel, Memorial. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, GQ, The Awl, and Catapult. He lives in Houston.
With such a feast of talent on offer this year I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to who will win the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, but whichever of these talented young writers takes the prize, they will be a worthy winner.