As part of the 2021 Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival, the organisation Creative Future hosted their annual Writers’ Award, judged by literary giants Dorothy Koomson and Joelle Taylor. The competition aims to showcase voices under-represented in the world of literature, whether that be due to mental health, social circumstance, disability, ethnicity, health, or identity. What emerged as a result of this year’s competition winners was a beautiful anthology entitled Essential, featuring a range of different poetic and prose styles but all equally as enthralling.
As each writer rose to the small stage to read aloud their piece from the anthology, there was an emotive atmosphere in the audience; being back in a space where literature is read aloud after 18 months of isolation and reading alone was beautiful indeed. The writers began in ascending order, alternating between those who won for prose and poetry, and started with Lumière Chieh, recipient of Commended Prose for her short piece, As a rule. Her prose centred around the idea of cooking as a cultural experience as she reflects on her Nigerian heritage and childhood experiences with her grandmother. The theme of family and community heritage is one which Commended Poetry winner Steve Roberts also reflects on in his poem, How can I. A Goldsmiths College alum, Roberts’ poem is not afraid to directly address the impact of Covid-19 on ourselves, whether because it ‘shut down de church’ as he mourns the loss of an elderly relative’s memory in the midst of a global tragedy.
Image credit: India Roper-Evans
It is interesting to see the different awards handed out to the writers, as all seem worthy of top prizes in their own way, whether commended or deemed worthy of the Platinum award. The Highly Commended Prose, No One Can Save Anyone, by Farah Ahmed was instead pre-recorded as a reading as Ahmed herself was unable to be in London for the event. In her prose, a young woman based in Kampala, Uganda, travels to a hospital to give a blood transfusion to a patient with HIV. Her protagonist is desperate to meet the patient due to their now ‘blood connection’, but they sadly pass away before they can receive the transfusion. The grief articulated in Ahmed’s prose is intricately explored, especially in an age of perceived hopelessness against those who have power to change the lives of those who need it, ending with a poignant and devastating jump from the balcony of a rooftop Chinese restaurant. This similar sense of desperation and hopelessness is equally devastating in her poetry counterpart’s piece, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs according to a 16-year-old girl lying on a single bed staring at the ceiling in a homeless hostel. The poet, Jem Henderson, used their own experiences of homelessness and now as Head of Innovation at the homeless charity Crisis, to lay bare the reality of homelessness today. References to their own self-harm pepper the poem as a sinister underlying tone, as Henderson goes through the various experiences that led them to this point. The dreams of basic needs such as a ‘humming fridge that makes me grin when I open it’ and ‘a place to be/myself, away’.
Each piece in its own way uses the writers’ own personal experiences and anecdotes, giving life to the often commonly used expression, ‘write what you know’. The Bronze Prose, Tidal, by Nanci Gilliver, however abstracts this in a piece seemingly set in a period of prehistory, referred to as ‘before the flood’. Focusing on a young girl who starts her first period, which causes her to dream of the flood and its prophecies, Gilliver ponders on the lunar connotations of menstruation and the role of women in communities from the very dawn of the Biblical times she refers to. The Bronze Poetry winner, Anna Himali Howard, takes a more dark humorous approach in her piece, chomp, chomp, chomp, which offers a reprieve from the darker side of these literary readings. Discussing a Reddit AMA in which a woman had her face eaten by a bear, the seemingly gory premise instead turns into a commentary about health inequality and medical costs and how we fail to consider the aftermath of shocking events in our constantly online culture.
After a brief interval in which guests were invited to buy the anthology itself or donate to Creative Future, readings began from the Silver Prose Award winner, Ulka Karandikar, with her work entitled Mr Kohli’s Carpets, soon to be a full novel. Based around the premise of an isolated woman who begins an unlikely friendship with the man who fits her new carpets, Karandikar’s prose is joyful and thought provoking in equal measure. Jess Murrain’s poem, Falling short, the Silver Poetry Award recipient, is more lamentable than her prose counterpart’s as she writes about a lost relationship marred by abuse which stayed with me long after I left the event.
The banality of routine was explored in Amelia Zhou’s Gold winning prose, Bright, reflecting on the voyeurism and surveillance of those around us in a period which intensified this atmosphere. Documenting her sunbathing neighbours, Zhou uses a wide range of imagery to bring this theme to light in a way that borders almost on sinister, jealous of those who live their lives outside for all to see and consume. Aischa Daughtery’s Gold poem, i call myself dyke not just because i am, but so you know you’re not alone, is a scattered narrative of coming out and embracing sexuality and the stigma of it. A salve for those wounded by slurs and an exclusionary world, Daughtery’s poem is a reassurance that it does indeed get better, full of ‘art & dinner & love’.
Finally, the platinum readings begin and the recipient of the prose section, Shazia Altaf, talks about her story, Essential thread, which centres around Amma and Abba, the latter of whom has been sectioned for depression. The trauma experienced by both individuals as Abba eventually undergoes electroconvulsive therapy is carefully worded by Altaf, when it could have been so carelessly sensationalised given the already taboo nature of mental health, and her essential thread of Altaf eventually comes back.
As a conclusion, Rhiya Pau begins her reading of her Platinum poem, simply entitled Enough. An emotional reading that reflects on experiences of her grandparents who emigrated to the United Kingdom, Pau offers thanks as they always ensured their children and grandchildren ‘always know enough’ whether that is through food or language. A poignant ending to many poignant and beautiful readings, Enough is the perfect tonic to an increasingly divided world, much like all of the texts are.
Written and edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor.