The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have been announced, the Awards are held annually with the winners for each category being announced on 16 May 2022 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
With numerous categories I’ll head straight into the shortlists.
The Christina Stead Prize ($40,000) for Fiction.
Tony Birch for ‘Dark as Last Night’ Merlinda Bobis for ‘The Kindness of Birds’ Katherine Brabon for ‘The Shut Ins’ John Hughes for ‘The Dogs’ John Kinsella for ‘Pushing Back’ Claire Thomas for ‘The Performance’
The UTS Glenda Adams Award ($5,000) for New Writing (writer has not previously had a published book length work)
Ella Baxter for ‘The New Animal’ Kavita Bedford for ‘Friends & Dark Shapes’ Stuart Everly-Wilson for ‘Low Expectations’ Angela O’Keefe for ‘Night Blue’ Monica Raszewski for ‘The Archaeology of a Dream City’ Chloe Wilson for ‘Hold Your Fire’
The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) for Non-Fiction
Bernadette Brennan for ‘Leaping Into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears’ Veronica Gorrie for ‘Black and Blue: a memoir of racism and resilience’ Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’ Kate Holden for ‘The Winter Road: A story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek’ Brendan James Murray for ‘The School: The ups and downs of one year in the classroom’ Mark Willacy for ‘Rogue Forces’
The Kenneth Slessor Prize ($30,000) for Poetry
Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’ Evelyn Araluen for ‘Drop Bear’ Eileen Chong for ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’ Dan Disney for ‘accelerations & inertias’ John Kinsella for ‘Supervivid Depastoralism’ Bella Li for ‘Theory of Colours’
The Patricia Wrightson Prize ($30,000) for Children’s Literature
Philip Bunting for ‘Me, Microbes and I’ Peter Carnavas for ‘My Brother Ben’ Christopher Cheng & Stephen Michael King for ‘Bear and Rat’ Karen Foxlee for ‘Dragon Skin’ Morris Gleitzman for ‘Always’ Kirli Saunders for ‘Bindi’
The Ethel Turner Prize ($30,000) for Young People’s Literature
Kathryn Barker for ‘Waking Romeo’ Felicity Castagna for ‘Girls in Boys’ Cars’ Leanne Hall for ‘The Gaps’ Pip Harry for ‘Are you there, Buddah?’ Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’ Rhiannon Wilde for ‘Henry Hamlet’s Heart’
The Nick Enright Prize ($30,000) for Playwriting
Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’ James Elazzi for ‘Queen Fatima’ Elias Jamieson Brown for ‘Green Park’ Finegan Kruckemeyer for ‘Hibernation’ Kirsty Marillier for ‘Orange Thrower’ Ian Michael, Chris Isaacs for ‘York’
The Betty Roland Prize ($30,000) for Scriptwriting
Shaun Grant for ‘Nitram’ Alec Morgantiriki Onus for ‘Ablaze’ Kelsey Munro for ‘Bump Episode 10 ‘Matrescence’ Season 1’ Leah Purcell for ‘The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson’
The Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)
Randa Abdel-Fattah for ‘Coming of Age in the War on Terror’ Safdar Ahmed for ‘Still Alive’ Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’ Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’ Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’ Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’
The NSW Premier’s Translation Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award
The award will next be offered in 2023.
The Indigenous Writers’ Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award
Larissa Behrendt for ‘After Story’ Lisa Fuller for ‘Ghost Bird’ Anita Heiss for ‘Bila Yarrudhangglangdhuray; River of Dreams’ Terri Janke for ‘True Tracks’ Gary Lonesborough for ‘The Boy From the Mish’ Alf Taylor for ‘God, the Devil and Me’
There are also awards for “People’s Choice” (Only taken from the Fiction Award list), “Book of the Year” and a “Special Award”.
Appropriately on International Women’s Day the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction is announced. Here are the thirteen titles longlisted for the 2022 Prize:
‘The Bread the Devil Knead’ by Lisa Allen-Agostini ‘Salt Lick’ by Lulu Allison ‘Remote Sympathy’ by Catherine Chidgey ‘The Paper Palace’ by Miranda Cowley Heller ‘The Sentence’ by Lousie Eldrich ‘Flamingo’ by Rachel Elliott ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason ‘The Exhibitionist’ by Charlotte Mendelson ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ by Ruth Ozeki ‘This One Sky Day’ by Leone Ross ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ by Elif Shafak ‘The Great Circle’ by Maggie Shipstead ‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’ by Dawnie Walton
Eight of the thirteen titles beginning with “The…”
Of the titles I have only read one, “This One Sky Day” by Leone Ross as it was shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. I will possibly get to a few more over the coming months, depending upon availability (for example, last year’s longlisted ‘Detransition Baby’ by Torrey Peters took seven months to arrive in the post!!!)
This year’s judges are Mary Ann Sieghart (Chair), author of ‘The Authority Gap: Why We Still Take Women Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It’, Pandora Sykes, journalist, Anita Sethi, author of ‘I Belong Here: a Journey Along the Backbone of Britain’, Dorothy Koomson, author of ‘I Know What You’ve Done’ and Lorraine Candy journalist.
This year the shortlist of six titles will be announced on 27 April and the winner on 15 June 2022, unlike some prizes this one gives you a decent amount of reading time to get through the titles before culling the list and announcing a winner.
The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016. Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.
The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.
Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).
“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.
On 10 February 2022, the shortlist for the 2022 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the Rathbones Folio Prize website.
A Black British woman is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself.
Damon Galgut, The Promise
This novel charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The family is gathering for Ma’s funeral; the younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the family’s black maid.
Selima Hill, Men Who Feed Pigeons
This collection brings together seven contrasting but complementary poem sequences all relating to men and different kinds of women’s relationships with men.
Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale
In this illuminating exploration of the intersection between life, art and the sea, Philip Hoare sets out to discover why Albert Dürer’s art endures. In encounters with medieval alchemists, modernist poets, eccentric emperors, queer soul rebels and ambassadorial whales these explorations provoke awkward questions: what is natural or unnatural? Is art a fatal contract? Or does it in fact have the power to save us?
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These
In 1985, in an Irish town, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.
Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms
Bridget is in her early forties. She sees her mother, Helen (Hen), once a year, an arrangement that suits them both. But what is this relationship that feels to Bridget mostly performative? Is Bridget cruel to Hen, or is she merely rational? Is it possible for these two women to find peace with one another without acknowledging the truth of it, without reckoning with the past?
Sunjeev Sahota, China Room
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. This is a heart-stopping story of love, family, survival and betrayal from a prize-winning author.
Colm Toibin, The Magician
The Magician is at once the intimate portrait of a writer and, at the same time, the story of a turbulent century. It tells the story of Thomas Mann, who would find himself on the wrong side of history in WW1; would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity.
The 2022 judges are Tessa Hadley (Chair), writer of short stories and novels, Rachel Long poet and founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour and William Atkins, non-fiction writer. Tessa Hadley saying at the shortlist announcement; “We’re so excited by our shortlist for the Rathbones Folio Prize this year. Our eight books were chosen from a fairly dazzling longlist of twenty; so many good books, prose fiction and poetry and non-fiction – so difficult to weigh one against another. There were just a few books that had seized us from the first page and hadn’t let us down until the last, and then seemed even richer and larger on a second reading.”
The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced on 23 March 2022.
Carmen Maria Machado won the 2021 prize for her memoir of domestic abuse in a female relationship ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) becoming the second female to win the award after Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli won the award in 2020 for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate).
Worth £20,000, the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is “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 fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama.
On 4 February the longlist of titles for the award was announced:
What Noise Against the Cane – Desiree Bailey (Yale University Press)
Keeping the House – Tice Cin (And Other Stories)
Auguries of a Minor God – Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (Faber)
The Sweetness of Water – Nathan Harris (Tinder Press/Headline)
No One is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus)
Milk Blood Heat – Dantiel W. Moniz (Atlantic Books)
Hot Stew – Fiona Mozley (John Murray Press)
Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson (Viking, Penguin General)
Acts of Desperation – Megan Nolan (Jonathan Cape)
Peaces – Helen Oyeyemi (Faber)
Filthy Animals – Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Publishing)
Chair, co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Namita Gokhale is joined by judges Rachel Trezise, Luke Kennard, Alan Bilton and Irenosen Okojie to reduce the longlist down to six titles, with the shortlist announcement coming on 31 March 2022. The winner will be announced on 12 May 2022, two days before International Dylan Thomas Day.
Previous winners of the Prize were:
2006 – Rachel Trezise for ‘Fresh Apples’
2008 – Nam Le for ‘The Boat’
2010 – Elyse Fenton for ‘Clamour’
2011 – Lucy Cadwell for ‘The Meeting Point’
2012 – Maggie Shipstead for ‘Seating Arrangements’
2013 – Claire Vaye Watkins for ‘Battleborn’
2014 – Joshua Ferris for ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’
2016 – Max Porter for ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’
2017 – Fiona McFarlane for ‘The High Places’
2018 – Kayo Chingonyi for ‘Kumukanda’
2019 – Guy Gunaratne for ‘In Our Mad and Furious City’
…who is telling the story (should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient) when in fact the truly problematic question is: Who is listening? – Francine Prose ‘Reading Like A Writer’
When Charles Dickens wrote ‘Bleak House’ he decided to discard “should the narrator be first or third person” logic and wrote a novel using both! It is a complex novel, innumerable characters (Wikipedia lists twenty-one major characters and forty minor ones!), and an intricate plot, presented in two parallel voices, the omniscient third person and the first-person voice of Esther Summerson, Dickens’ only female narrator. The third-person narration is in the present tense and Esther’s voice in the past tense.
I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll, when we were alone together, ‘Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!’ And so she used to sit propped by in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me — or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing — while I busily stitched away, and told her every one of my secrets.
An unreliable narrator indeed, Esther is not as simple as she first presents herself, as we learn with her relationships and intuitive sense. With her voice come the usual narrative errors, for example the first section of Chapter Fifty-One where she relays a conversation between Mr Woodcourt and Mr Vholes, where Mr Woodcourt is attempting to ascertain Richard’s address, Esther is not present however she suddenly has this omniscient ability.
And Esther withholds information in her narration, to heighten the tension, not divulge the mystery:
What more the letter told me, needs not to be repeated here. It has its own times and places in my story.
‘Bleak House’ is a novel of mystery, it contains a murder, a detective (I read somewhere one of the first detectives in fiction, could that be true?), it even contains spontaneous combustion, and, as per the usual Charles Dickens trope, characters with unknown parentage who may (or may not) come into wealth. It is the omniscient third person voice where the mystery is heightened, by withholding information.
Mr Snagsby can not make out what it is that he has had to do with. Something is wrong, somewhere; but what something, what may come of it, to whom, when, and from which unthought of and unheard of quarter, is the puzzle of his life. His remote impressions of the robes and coronets, the stars and garters, that sparkle through the surface-dust of Mr Tulkinghorn’s chambers; his veneration for the mysteries presided over by that best and closest of his customers, whom all the Inns of Court, all Chancery Lane, and all the legal neighbourhood agree to hold in awe; his remembrance of Detective Mr Bucket with his fore-finger, and his confidential manner impossible to be evaded or declined; persuade him that he is a party to some dangerous secret, without knowing what it is. And it is the fearful peculiarity of this condition that, at any hour of his daily life, at any opening of the shop-door, at any pull of the bell, at any entrance of a messenger, or any delivery of a letter, the secret may take air and fire, explode, and blow up — Mr Bucket only knows whom.
As Wayne C. Booth states in his ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction’:
Mystery is easily enough attained in any mode, of course, but one trouble with the old-fashioned methods of ‘Bleak House’ and The Brothers Karamazov’ is that often no reason for the mystery is provided other that the narrator’s desire to mystify. He knows all the time what he holds back until later, and although a skilful author, like a skilful magician, can conceal his suppressions and unveilings pretty well, we are likely to feel cheated when we discover that facts were held back for no good reason.
Between March 1852 and September 1853 ‘Bleak House’ appeared in nineteen monthly instalments, the final one being a double edition. The two narrative voices appear in each edition. The chopping and changing, whilst disorienting to begin with adds a regular change of perspective to a large literary work (my Oxford World’s Classics edition runs to 914 pages for the novel itself with added sections for notes, introductions, recommended reading etc), one that, with careful reading, takes some time to complete.
The opening is transfixing, you are entering a murky place, a place where everything is indistinct, here’s the second through fifth paragraphs from Chapter One:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard ad unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the High Lord Chancellor in his High Court Chancery.
Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
And as we moved from the fog along the river into the “very heart of the fog” we have entered the murky and corrupt legal profession, Dickens not holding back in his disdain of lawyers and courts. As I read this opening, I had thoughts of Olga Tokarczuk’s opening part of ‘The Books of Jacob’ (translated by Jennifer Croft), ‘The Book of Fog’!!!
Whilst sharing my reading experience of Dickens, on Twitter, I have learned of others currently reading his books, a wintertime tradition for a few, there is even another reading ‘Bleak House’. Given it is the height of summer here, I am not convinced that there’s a winter association with Dickens as these other readers thought, maybe there is a Christmas time one given his Christmas themes, whatever the attraction I think another during December – January 2022-2023 could be on the agenda. As for the opening quote from Francine Prose, there’s never been any question as to “who was listening” for Charles Dickens, I wonder if those fancy creative writing courses of today would condone the use of two voices within a single novel?
Carol Mavor ‘Thoughts One Can’t Do Without:’ (Series) ‘A Magpie and an Envelope’
I closed my last post with a quote from a Juxta Press pamphlet, a memoir by Carol Mavor. After her parent’s deaths she had found an envelope, a letter written for her, and left by her father.
As professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, Jon McGregor set up “The Letters Page” in 2013. At that stage he had recently won the Dublin Literary Award for ‘Even The Dogs’ and his Costa Book Award winning novel ‘Reservoir 13’ was still a few years away from being finished/published. A literary journal was founded on letters being received in his office by post. As Jon McGregor points out in one of the first letters published:
…a letter always comes from the past. Unlike the many forms of digital correspondence, which arrive immediately and can be responded to immediately, postal correspondence insists on coming from another time and place. You wait for a letter, and your correspondent waits for a reply. The person who sent you the letter is already a little bit older by the time you read it.
McGregor felt there was “some virtue in this” and a literary journal was born.
“The Letters Page” published its first issue in October 2013, sending a selection of letters from Magnus Mills, Colum McCann, Clare Wigfall, and Gerard Donovan, amongst others, to our small-but-heroic band of early subscribers. The issue was launched by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Sir David Greenaway, who pressed the appropriate button on the laptop and sent the PDF file winging its way into the world.
There has been six subsequent issues featuring letters from Kevin Barry, George Saunders, Claire-Louise Bennett, Naomi Alderman, Andrey Kurkov, Joanna Walsh, and many more. As one of the early subscribers I do have PDF copies of the publications, however it is the handcrafted limited edition boxed set containing loose-leaf reproductions of the contributors’ original handwritten letters, alongside an illustrated booklet of transcriptions that I am looking at today. Volume 1 published by Book Ex Machina.
The long-term aim was for the letters to become “a printed object, something beautiful to hold and keep hold of, something we could send you, fittingly, through the post.” A selection of “our” (read Jon McGregor’s) favourite letters from the first seven issues were collected and published in this boxed set.
The loose-leaf reproductions of the handwritten letters revealing more than their transcriptions. For example, Cassie Gonzales’ letter, submitted under the name of Linda Lopez, is typed, contains corrections in red and various redactions (text struck through with XXX) – in the facsimile you can decipher the redacted text, in the transcription it is presented as footnotes. The heightened tension and the unravelling of the protagonist is more effective in the manic XXX redacted version.
George Sanders’, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, handwriting is indecipherable, I had to go straight to the transcription. For Clare Wigfall’s letter it is suggested that you source and play Vivaldi’s motet “Nulla in mundo pax sincera” whilst reading the instalment of a young frightened child. Or the artistically drawn “Dear x” by Éirann Lorsung, thirteen and a half poems (only half of one piece appears on the page), this letter comes with an exclusive song by Ben Weaver which you can download by using a QR code.
There is also a letter that appeared in the “Protest” issue, “urgent accounts of marches and riots in Hong Kong, Budapest, and Kiev”, it is a from Audrey Kurkov and it addresses the aftermath of winter riots in Ukraine. The hypocracy of kids sending gifts to freedom fighters or the army.
One day examples of this artwork by children on both sides of the front line will hang side by side on display in one museum.
Time being the theme that links a number of these works, as McGregor had mentioned “a letter always comes from the past” and he also says “here we are – or here we will be, in four or five months’ time, when you read this”, a prediction that would have been appropriate upon the release of this collection, however I am re-reading these letters five YEARS later. Their timelessness very much showing through.
A letter to Alan Bennett, from Karen McLeod featuring a recollection of stories about her father and his recent stroke, as well as soaking in the bath. Or Naomi Alderman, writing on a plane from Israel to London:
You know what Orthodox Jews are good at? We’re good at saying “no”. At refusing.
A Bartleby letter.
There are also letters, although not facsimiles, from well know writers such as Kevin Barry, Joanna Walsh and others, a beautifully presented and produced collection, inspiring the resurrection of the letter, in our more recent times of isolation, something that Jon McGregor couldn’t have foreseen, however these connections something we should probably revive.
I do have addresses for a number of my followers, in the coming weeks I may post you a letter, keep an eye on your mailbox!!
The boxed set was limited to 500 copies, a few remain, if you are interested you can purchase it directly from the publisher here.
The Booker prize arguably Britain’s preeminent literary prize, well it was until at least 2013 when they changed the rules, removing the eligibility restrictions for writers of the Commonwealth, Ireland and South Africa and allowing any writer in English to win the award. When the Booker changed the rules other awards sprung up, for example the Folio Prize, the idea for the prize came into being when a group of British intellectuals “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking – they saw it leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction.”
Whilst the Folio Prize arrived with much fanfare, after two years it was put on hold, a year later it was revived with halved prizemoney and amended rules to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry, prizemoney was increased again (to 75% of the 2014 sum) in 2019.
Also, in 2013 the Goldsmiths Prize was established, to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Entry is limited to citizens and residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to novels published by presses based in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Whilst prizemoney (£10,000) is only a fraction of the prizes on offer for the Booker (£50,000) and the Rathbones Folio (£30,000) Prizes, it is an award where the riches of challenging or pertinent literature is on show.
The 2021 Goldsmiths Prize winner was ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner, a novel that opens with our protagonist, Sterling, being assailed by bullfighters, the matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.” This is a work that looks at people on the fringes, an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ was rightfully awarded the prize. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in one of the referenced paintings says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.
Reclamation is a theme that, to varying degrees, runs through three other titles that made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
Compulsive picking or scratching of the skin is known as excoriation disorder and this is generally considered a mental disorder and can be associated with anxiety, depression or uncontrolled urges. Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’ is set over the course of a single day and follows a young woman living with the fallout of being sexually assaulted. Our protagonist is attempting to reclaim their life prior to being raped. When her anxiety is dialled up to TEN she scratches, just a little scratch.
The novel is written as though you are examining all of the thoughts inside of the protagonist’s head, it includes the monotony of simple tasks such as going to the toilet, drinking water, cycling, texting, reading emails, alongside making small talk with work colleagues and her partner, with the lurking monster of rape interrupting every so often. This is a visual as well as a rhythmic and scattered novel, almost akin to blank verse the page is peppered with blank spaces as her mind slows down or sped up and the page becomes cluttered, or split into columns to signify concurrent thoughts or interruptions.
This is an extremely effective approach, the overlapping of thoughts and the sense of being overwhelmed punching though the day to day mundane. In a recent interview Rebecca Watson says “With ‘little scratch’, the rhythm propels you on. You’re encouraged to read it fast, skipping across and down the page. The challenge is to inhabit the head of another person, and in present tense, you don’t have time to stop and start, to pause over a thought that has already been replaced by another.” It is a book that lends itself to reading in a single sitting or over the course of a single day. Innovative, fresh and extremely effective at relaying the trauma of sexual assault, I was captured from the opening page. A revelation.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel ‘Checkout 19’ also includes rape trauma:
‘Hello,’ I will say, in my voice more or less, and it will be Dale’s voice I hear back and Dale will say without preamble at all, ‘When you came back from Brighton last year I raped you didn’t I?’ And then there will be a pause and I’ll cagily move some letters around on the floor near the front door with the toes on my left foot and then I will look up at a dark cobweb in the coving and I’ll hear my voice say to Dale, ‘If you’re asking me did you have sex with me when I didn’t want you to then yes the answer’s yes Dale,’ and Dale will curse, Dale will say ‘fuck, fuck,’ and I’ll her him saying things about how I’d already been treated so abysmally and how angry that had made him and how he couldn’t bear it the way I’d been treated so badly by the most disgusting arrogant men and yet it turned out that he was worse, worse than all of them put together, and he’ll sound very emotional and I won’t feel emotional at all, I’ll feel embarrassed, and I’ll say ‘Perhaps I bring out the worst in men’ and I’ll be joking actually but then it will be a notion that occurs to me frequently and persuasively for the next fifteen years or so and Dale will tell me how awful he feels, how awful it’s been, and I’ll say, I’ll say to poor Dale, ‘Look Dale don’t dwell on it, I don’t, I hardly ever think of it – I think it’s OK,’ and he won’t say anything and I’ve wondered since if somewhere in him he hated me for saying that because if he had behaved worse than those men he had castigated and tried to keep me away from, if he had done the worst possible thing yet still hadn’t managed to get under my skin, what did that mean, what on earth did that mean exactly. I hadn’t so much absolved him as obliterated him. I should have cried perhaps. I ought to have cried really.
The content, style, approach opposite to Rebecca Watson’s. Long winding sentences, auto-fiction but possibly simply fiction that switches tenses, that is speculative (the phone call and discussion above could well be imagined as it is a response to a phone ringing that nobody else in the shared house had answered). ‘Checkout 19’ is a detailed examination of a reader and writer’s life, memories of the books read, one at a time, the events that happened whilst reading those books, memories of clothes picked up in Op shops, along with books, the writing of stories, and rewriting (do the original writings exist?), the novel is a blur inside somebody else’s head. If I was to attempt a definition of the main narrative, it is a writer revisiting her memories to make sense of her identity. However she’s an unreliable narrator, the narratives become sub narratives which become the narrative which loops off into a different sub narrative. Similar to ‘little scratch’ in that we are inside an unnamed protagonist’s head, this work is more complex, cluttered. A collection of memories that may be linked, if only because they happened to one person.
Deeply indebted to a raft of classic novels, where Claire-Louise Bennett may deftly refer or deeply imagine, for example our protagonist reads E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room With A View’, travels to Italy and stands on the banks of the River Arno, other references are fleeting:
I had not yet read but have done since the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz and though I had red many novels by Milan Kundera I had not yet read his gallant essays in Testaments Betrayed which I read with a great deal of pleasure some years later and which might have put me on to Gombrowicz, as well as Calvino perhaps, and definitely Fernando Pessoa. I had not read any Hofmannsthal or Handke, or Goethe, or Robert Walser. I had read Death in Venice. One of the first serious works I read was The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and I got that from the library and it was a very big book and I read it during that week or so when my bedroom was being painted and I slept in the spare room on a sofa bed. I really liked sleeping on the sofa bed even though I found it more difficult to get up in the morning when I slept in it, probably because of it being so low down, and I preferred that room to my own, even though ti was much smaller. I’ve always preferred to go to sleep in a small room.
And off goes the sub narrative about room size! A novel where our protagonist is searching for her identity, where there are no conclusions, just statements and linkages, a looping innovative work, one that kept me entranced throughout.
A third work from the shortlist that also explores identity is the short novella ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown. Here we have another unnamed narrator, a black female mid tier employee at a large financial services company.
She often sat in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room and stared at the door. She’d sit for an entire lunch break, sometimes, waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.
He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild, her skin (exotic), he blouse (barely containing those breasts).
Over the phone, he instructed her to do little things. This humiliated her more than the bigger things that eventually followed, Still, she held her stapler up high as directed. Drank her entire glass of water in one go. Spat out her chewing gum into her hand.
A similar scenario to Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’, here the boss also sexually harasses “He was getting up from his chair, walking towards her, brushing against her though the office was large and he had plenty of space.” And here we are, again, inside the protagonist’s head, this character having the added burden of systemic racism.
New York Sunday night, London Saturday morning. You fly the round trip regularly for work. But the attendant stops you. At Heathrow, Sunday afternoon, the attendant lunges into your path before you can reach the business desk. Places a firm hand against your upper arm. The attendant’s fingers – who knows what else they’ve touched? – now press into the soft, grey wool of your coat. You look down at this hand on your body; at the flecks of dirt beneath its fingernails, the pale hairs sprouting from its clammy skin. And then its owner, the attendant, points and speaks loudly, as though you don’t understand, says: Regular check-in is over there. The attendant won’t acknowledge your ticket, no, just waves you over to the long queue. It winds back and forth, penned in between ropes, all the way to the regular check-in-desk. The attendant says: Yes, there’s your line, over there.
Our protagonist here has received a promotion, has recently seen a specialist about cancer and is heading to the country estate of her (white colonial) boyfriend’s family for a weekend of celebration for his parent’s wedding anniversary. Although prosperous, an owner of a small property and recently promoted she comes to a realisation that she is complicit in the ongoing capitalist façade. As the preparations for her weekend away move closer, the flashbacks, questioning and urge for understanding becomes more pressing.
But to carry on, now that I have a choice, is to choose complicity.
Containing biting parallels between black and white, privilege and working class this is an urgent work that confronts the racist divide head on;
Per bell hooks; We must engage decolonization as a critical practice if we are to have meaningful chances of survival . . . yes, yes! But I don’t know how. How do we examine the legacy of colonization when the basic facts of its construction are disputed in the minds of its beneficiaries? Even that which wasn’t burnt in the 60’s – by British officials during the government-sanctioned frenzy of mass document destruction. Operation Legacy, to spare the Queen embarrassment. The more insidious act, though less sensational, proved to have the greatest impact: a deliberate exclusion and obfuscation within the country’s national curriculum. Through this, more than records were destroyed. The erasure itself was erased.
Another important novel, amongst at least four from the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
The Booker may be still awarding prizes to stories of “diminished families and troubled lands” the Goldsmiths is reflecting current thinking addressing “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Note – I reviewed these in the order I read them, there is no preference for any book, they are each wonderful examples of what fiction can do.
Warning: This review contains descriptions of bullfighting which may upset some readers.
Traditional bullfighting is understandably on the wane, with the blood sport highlighting animal cruelty as well as its ties to nationalistic behaviours. A bull fight is choreographed into three distinct phases, initially a matador observes the reaction of the bull by the waving of a banderilleros’ “capote” (cloak), two picadors, mounted on heavily padded and blindfolded horses then repeatedly drive a “vara” (lance) into the muscles of the bull’s neck, the second phase sees the matador planting barbed sticks “banderillas” (little flags) into the bull’s shoulders, this weakens the neck and shoulder muscles, finally the matador enters the ring alone, provokes the bull finally manouvering it so it can thrust the “estocada” (sword) between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart, resulting in the bull’s death.
A barbaric, tortuous process. It does not matter if the bull survives the process, it will still be taken out the back and be slaughtered.
As far as bullfighting goes, a draw isn’t a thing apparently. A bullfight isn’t a contest, it’s a ritualized tragedy. The outcome is never in question: the bull always dies. If, rarely, a matador fails to place the killing thrust, the bull is led out and killed in the back. So no, no draw.
Isabel Waidner is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing/Performance at Queen Mary University of London their profile reading in part:
I am a writer based in London, with a specialism in interdisciplinary and innovative forms of creative writing at the intersection with queer and trans theory.
Isabel Waidner has been twice shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for their two novels, ‘Gaudy Bauble’ and ‘We are Made of Diamond Stuff’ (both published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) and their latest novel, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ (Peninsula Press) has recently made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
‘Sterling Karat Gold’ is narrated in the first person by Sterling, who appears in the streets of Camden Town “in a white football shirt wrapped my waist like a skirt. Red velvet bullfighter jacket on, and black montera, traditional bullfighter hat. Yellow football socks, black leather loafers.” As the references at the end of the book advise this is based on Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter-footballer fusion outfit, from Central Saint Martins (2016)
Sterling then becomes involved in an attack, a bullfight, where they are assailed by picadors and matadors, having lances pierced into their neck, banderilleros are run into their shoulders (with the colours of the St George Cross), once exhausted the matador has raised the sword above their head when a person in “trackie bottoms and a jumper” distracts the matador by showing Sterling a red card.
Chief bully on horseback, playing at being a picador like everyone else. Picador is one of a pair of horsemen in a traditional bullfight who jabs the bull with a lance, and it is also a British publishing house.
This is a vivid and wonderful allegorical opening. The plight of humans on the fringes, constantly jabbed, assailed, bullied with no recourse, knowing that “the outcome is never in question”. The matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Our novel then follows the life predicaments of Sterling, their friend Chachki, the mysterious saviour in the “trackie bottoms and a jumper” Rodney and a cast of persecutors, through time travel, spaceship rides, performance pieces, and life histories. Using cultural icons (all referenced at the end of the novel) such as the album cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’
and the artwork ‘The End of the Trail’ by Robert H. Colescott (1976) this is multi layered work delving deeply into ingrained “class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Chapter 4, “My father’s lover was never the stepdad I wanted him to be”, looks at the footballer Justin Fashanu, the first football player in England’s topflight to come out, his career then falling apart before he took his own life in 1988, aged 37.
This is an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, this is one that stands out, head and shoulders above the pack. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in Colescott’s painting says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.
In the character’s time travelling adventures they visit Iraq, where the subject of dissent comes up:
Western regimes topple dissenters much close to home, too, despite cultivating the idea that they don’t.
Throughout you need to be alert to the subtle, and not so subtle, references to the people on the margins who are constantly under attack. Sterling can’t even get a job in a gay sauna as a cleaner, the lowest job possible, the reason? “Man boobs”.
Using images for such extremes as Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter outfit and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, or books such as Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ your reading is peppered with historical artefacts, all creating a vivid chaotic picture. There’s even an interesting stream of artworks and frescoes that have the appearance of spacecraft, I look these up on the web and suddenly I’m going down a rabbit hole of extraterrestrial images in early religious art!
Using the idea of a traditional and nationalistic practice, the bullfight, as a central theme, allows for numerous parallels, metaphors and allegories to be made. Late in the novel there’s the sentence, “They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.” Read that sentence again….
They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.
Sound like any of those right-wing media pundit’s, or politicians?
As Isabel Waidner says:
this is why they stage executions as bullfights in the first place.
A very important novel, entertaining, bat shit crazy at times, but always with its feet firmly placed on the ground, a novel of dissent, activism and a plea for the slow torture to stop.
My copy of this novel was reveived as part of the monthly books from small independent publishers sent as part of my Republic of Consciousness Prize subscription. If you want to join in the fun and receive independent books visit their “Book of the Month” page.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Scottish born poet Ali Whitelock about her second book ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, a collection that was due for launch on the first day of lockdown in Sydney. needless to say the launch was cancelled.
I talked to Ali Whitelock about the impacts of Covid, her poetic practice, her poems and a whole lot more.
Mascara Literary Review has been kind enough to publish the piece. Click the link to read more.
The T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry was inaugurated in 1993 by the Poetry Book Society in honour of its founding poet (T.S Eliot) and to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Society. In 2016 the T.S. Eliot Foundation took over running of the Prize after the Society was wound up and taken over by a book sales agency.
Prize money has been raised to £25,000 in 2021, with the winner taking home £11,500 and each of the nine runner’s-up receiving £1,500.
This year’s Chair of judges is writer Glyn Maxwell, with fellow judges being poets Caroline Bird and Zaffar Kunial. They made their way through 177 collections submitted for the prize, coming up with this year’s shortlist of ten books.
The shortlisted titles are:
Eat Or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (Carcanet)
Ransom by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)
Stones by Kevin Young (Jonathan Cape)
Men Who Feed Pigeons by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe)
The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe)
All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus (Picador)
A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto & Windus)
single window by Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press)
C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)
A Year in the New Life by Jack Underwood (Faber & Faber)
At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the Chair of judges, Glyn Maxwell, commented:
“We are delighted with our shortlist, while lamenting all the fine work we had to set aside. Poetry styles are as disparate as we’ve ever known them, and the wider world as threatened and bewildered as any of us can remember. Out of this we have chosen 10 books that sound clear and compelling voices of the moment. Older and younger, wiser and wilder, well-known and lesser-known, these are the 10 voices we think should enter the stage and be heard in the spotlight, changing the story.”
The winner will be announced on 10th January 2022.
Given my poetry reading has been a little scattered recently I look forward to sampling a few of these titles.
For those who are interested, here ae some links to poems by this year’s judges