Judging the International Dylan Thomas Prize by Kurt Heinzelman
Judging the International Dylan Thomas Prize is far more difficult than any other literary award I have ever judged. The reason is that the Prize is not only open to all English-language authors under 40 years old, no matter their national origin, but it is also open to all genres, for Thomas himself excelled in multiple genres. As a result one has to adjudicate between, say, a 60-page book of poetry and a novel of 800 pages, or between experimental or non-traditional kinds of writing and consummate narratives in a naturalist vein. I have been a judge for all ten years of the Prize’s history; this year’s longlist is the best overall and stylistically the most diverse. It is perhaps noteworthy to add that nine of these twelve longlisted authors were represented by only their first books.
To start, there were two novels that had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The first, Chigozie Oblioma’s The Fishermen, is an impeccably plotted, deeply impressive story of how a Nigerian family is taken apart by multiple kinds of madness that swirl around and through them. The second, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, follows five main characters as they try to survive against the prejudices that exist for them in both India and Britain. Another novel, City of Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg is a monumental exercise in taking the pulse of a nation—in this case, the United States--at a moment of great crisis.
Two more American novels are Laura van den Berg’s Find Me and Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things. The former is a wildly inventive dystopian fiction with relentless rhetorical force about a one-time cashier in Somerville, Massachusetts, a once sketchy suburb of Boston, who turns both explorer and introspective voyager on the wings of a plague to which she is miraculously immune. Pierpont’s is more of a domestic fiction centering on two teenage and pre-teen children who find their family life in New York City falling apart around them once they discover letters about their father’s ongoing adultery.
Two books feature animals as central characters: Tania James’s The Tusk That Did the Damage and Max Porter’s short debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The former is a multiperspectival and temporally layered narrative extending forward and back in recent history but also going into mythic time in which an elephant with a long memory plays the role of catalyst. The central character in Porter’s book is a crow, specifically Crow, the fictional character in Ted Hughes’s eponymous book. Crow comes as a quite unexpected mentor and comforter for a writer who is producing a book about Hughes and who was recently widowed and left as a single parent with two children.
The Glorious Heresies by the Irish writer Lisa McInerney is a sassy and at times wickedly funny story of five misfits whose lives come together in Cork in murderous and yet touching ways. We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris is something of a tour de force for the way its collected stories chart the mostly unrelated lives of people coming into and going out of the fairly modest metropolis of Caerphilly. Claire-Louise Bennett is the author of Pond, a book that is hard to characterize for its essays and meditations do not always have a plot, or even a shared narrator, though the voices emerge coherently, despite their stylistic unpredictability, through an almost Beckettian playful obsessiveness.
Bennett’s book reads at times like prose poetry, but the long list also includes two actual books of poetry. Andrew McMillan’s Physical is a painfully and poignantly narrated attempt, in variously free poetic forms, by a young man to understand his own masculinity. Disinformation by Frances Leviston is work of becoming clarity that includes poems with a remarkable range of reference—from classical myth to caribou, solar eclipses, mattress foam, and Frangelico liqueur (described by the poet as a “throat lacquer”).
How, then, was a shortlist determined? Each judge had particular and multiple preferences, of course. The final judging process was not, however, arbitrary or dominated by one or another judge’s beliefs: a genuine consensus emerged after more than two hours of intense and detailed conversation. One thing that may surprise some is that there was absolutely no sense of needing a distribution of genres or of authorial nationalities or genders. The only criterion was the excellence of the writing in relation to kind of book each author was attempting and as each judge understood that challenge. Many of the judges remarked afterwards that the collective adjudicating process was educational for themselves as readers, and I believe we all endorsed that sentiment. I felt Dylan Thomas himself would agree with the unanimous view of the judging panel that this year’s twelve books do honor to his own literary legacy.
The Shortlist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016:
· Claire-Louise Bennett - Pond
· Tania James - The Tusk that Did the Damage
· Frances Leviston - Disinformation
· Andrew McMillan - Physical
· Max Porter - Grief is the Thing with Feathers
· Sunjeev Sahota - The Year of the Runaways
The shortlisted authors will be appearing at the Southbank Centre on Thursday 12 May in a special ticketed event celebrating the prize’s tenth anniversary.
The winner will be announced at a gala ceremony in Swansea University’s Great Hall on its stunning new Bay Campus, on International Dylan Thomas Day, 14 May 2016.