Kayo Chingonyi brought what some might have thought a sense of poetic justice to the Dylan Thomas Prize when he was named this year’s winner of the world’s richest award for young writers in front of a large audience in the city of Thomas’s birth.
The annual competition for writers of 39 and under, in a nod to Thomas’s early death, and which earns the winner £30,000, had been looking strangely depleted. Half of the shortlisted writers did not attend.
Gabriel Tallent was at the other end of the world on a book tour of Australia. Fellow American Emily Ruskovich understandably did not attend on account of being eight months pregnant. Irish writer Sally Rooney was also absent. Health reasons meant chair of judges Dai Smith was also unable to be present.
In the event, Tallent and Ruskovich made video appearances, while Rooney’s publisher represented her. Professor John Spurr, of Swansea University, stood in for the absent Smith.
Tallent, whose dark debut novel My Absolute Darling (reviewed elsewhere in these pages) has been called a masterpiece by Stephen King, and Cuban-American horror writer Carmen Maria Machado, had been seen by some as front-runners in a strong field, which also included England’ s Gwendoline Riley.
On the night, Zambia-born Chingonyi, 31, came through the middle – his elegant, elegiac collection Kumakanda seen by many as a worthy winner.
Commenting on the high quality of the shortlist, judge Paul McVeigh said: ‘It wasn’t easy.’ An initial figure of 150 entries had been whittled to a dozen and then the final six.
Chingonyi’s presence meant that guest speakers Michael Sheen, who gave a powerful reading of Thomas’s poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, and Thomas’s grand-daughter Hannah Ellis, at least had someone to congratulate.
Chingonyi said: ‘I’m staggered. I really cannot believe this. It’s wonderful to receive an award in the name of Dylan Thomas.’ He added: ‘Poetry is at the centre of my life.’
Earlier he and his fellow writers gave readings and took questions before an audience of some fifty students and staff at Swansea University.
Chingonyi said: ‘One’s first book is an initiation of some kind into a literary community of one kind or another. There’s a sense that reading a poem, taking it into your heart or mind, is an initiation of some kind. That’s what I aspire to in writing poems. In that community we create something that could not have existed without me or without them.’
Hannah Ellis and Elaine Canning, executive officer for the prize, said an important part of the prize’s work had been developing educational opportunities in the UK and around the world.
Professor Spurr said the prize had shown Swansea to the world and had brought the best of the world to Swansea.
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