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?

Literature of the Borders

I live practically on the border between Switzerland and France – an area characterised by Lake Geneva, two mountain chains (Jura and the Alps) and a common language: French. Not surprisingly, there are a number of joint cultural initiatives in the area, not least of which the annual Lettres frontière prizes. Lettres frontière is an association seeking to promote links and exchange of ideas between authors and publishers from the Rhône-Alpes area of France and French-speaking Switzerland (Suisse romande). Of course, the mission is implicitly to make them better-known throughout the area, but also beyond. Every year, ten authors (five from France, five from Switzerland) are shortlisted out of an initial list of around 200 entries (for more details about their selection criteria – in French- see the website).

Bettina Steczynski, from www.rts.ch
Bettina Steczynski, from http://www.rts.ch

It’s tempting to write this off as a quaint little local pat on the back. However, past winners have included Hubert Mingarelli in 2002, Pascal Garnier in 2007 and Metin Arditi in 2012.

This year’s two winners are both women, I’m delighted to say. There is one winner for each country, to avoid political argy-bargy: ‘Sybille, une enfant de Silésie’ (Sybille, A Child from Silesia) by Bettina Stepczynski (Switzerland) and ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ (Don’t step on my soul with your shoes) by Paola Pigani (France).

Paola Pigani, from her publisher's website lianalevi.fr
Paola Pigani, from her publisher’s website lianalevi.fr

Both are about the Second World War or its immediate aftermath. Both are giving voice to populations that have been more or less forgotten or ignored. The first is about the forced displacement of Germans in the Polish region of Silesia after the war; the second is about the internment of gypsies in labour camps during the war.

 

Other shortlisted authors:

On the French side, a delightful variety of subjects and styles:

Chantal Thomas with a historical novel about an exchange of princesses between France and Spain in the 18th century; Florence Seyvos with a novel about family, friendship and Buster Keaton; Lorette Nobécourt’s biography of medieval mystic Hildegarde de Bingen; Jean-Daniel Baltassat about Stalin’s chaise-longue (or divan).

On the Swiss side, a combination of the predictable and the truly experimental.

Françoise Matthey poetical book inspired by 15th century mystic Nicolas de Flue; Nicolas Couchepin’s novel about an unusual family called Mensch; Roland Buti with a coming-of-age novel about the end of the agricultural era in the 1970s in Switzerland; Antonio Albanese’s playful exploration of 50 words and the concept of free will.

From lettresfrontiere.net
From lettresfrontiere.net

To note: 4 of the 5 shortlisted on the French side were women authors, as were two of the Swiss writers. Not a bad proportion!