#YoungWriterAward: Surge by Jay Bernard

I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.

Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.

Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.

Going in when the firefighters left

was like standing on a black beach

with the sea suspended in the walls,

soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]

The black is coming in from the cold,

rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.

It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.

don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –

to the sea-black rain –

and never tell my grandmother why I never called –

never called to say that I thought of her daily –

that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given

Author portrait copyright: Joshua Virasami

But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.

Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:

Will anybody speak of this

the way the flowers do,

the way the common speaks

of the fearless dying leaves?

Will anybody speak of this

the coming of the cold,

the queit it will bring

the fire we beheld?

Will anybody speak of this

the fire we beheld

the garlands at the gate,

the way the flowers do?

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?