I am a teacher. A high school teacher. A high school English teacher.
It is rough. And I think about quitting often. But I don’t. I don’t because in the last week I spoke about the symbolism of the moon, hating Shakespeare’s Claudio, cats, Beyonce, Jane Eyre as a feminist text, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, Kanye’s new album(s), Barthes’ The Death of the Author theory, Stranger Things, The Lord of The Rings as a critique of Macbeth, football, gender expectations, rereading, The Secret History, Harry Potter, sustainable fashion choices, love and lust and sex and death and friendship, the past and the present and the future. All in one week (and then some).
And I spoke of this all to young people. Young people who are all at once excited and terrified about life, young people who have minds that stretch and mould and continue to grow every day, young people who are not afraid to change their minds or questions their morals or see a situation in a light they’ve never considered before. I teach young people about language change and etymology while also recognising how it is these youth who are changing the course of linguistical history as their own vocabulary and grammar stretches and tears apart rules and regulations.
And so, in the world of books and publishing, where age is often seen as synonymous with wisdom and success, it is important to celebrate and honour youth.
The International Dylan Thomas Prize is “awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the Prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama. The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. One of the most influential, internationally-renowned writers of the mid-twentieth century, the prize invokes his memory to support the writers of today and nurture the talents of tomorrow.”
I’d already read four of the shortlisted books, and quickly read the final two after the prize graciously sent them to me a few days ago. Aside from celebrating youth, with four novels, one collection of short stories, and one poetry collection, the prize celebrates the breadth and depth of literature too.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is a book I’ve been obsessed with since seeing Ali Smith (Queen!) interview Rooney at The Cambridge Literary Festival. I inhaled the novel itself in the hours that followed and it left me astounded with its ability to articulate the millennial condition in such perfect prose. I mused about cool-ness and introspection and Conversations With Friends for Narrative Muse (which you can read here).
My copy of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is a novel that (until now) I think is seriously underrated; when I finished it I went to the internet and shouted ‘why is no one talking about this book!?’ Ideally read over one hot summer’s day, Idaho chronicles the lives of two women: one, Jenny now in prison for killing her young daughter on a hot August day, the other, Ann, now married to Jenny’s husband Wade. Their lives slip in and out of one another and Ruskovich devastatingly explores love and loss in every form.
Problematic in many ways, Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling is all kinds of haunting. It’s Winter’s Bone meets Lolita. I held this book at arms length, not daring to get too close to the characters, for fear it would fuck with me. I think it did anyway.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley has been all over the internet. After being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize, The Women’s Prize, and now The International Dylan Thomas Prize I expected the story of a ‘volatile marriage’ to be in the vein of Fates and Furies, or On Beauty, but it fell short. The prose was interesting, and Riley’s protagonist Neve had a cutting and wry voice, but the 167 pages had me wishing there were more. Not because I loved it, but because I felt like it had only just begun.
In our two person bookclub, Olivia and I read the same copy. We use different coloured pens to underline and annotate (I use black, she uses blue); this forms the basis of long dinners where we laze over wine and spend hours talking about the book. And, for Her Bodies and Other Parties we spent the evening speaking of magical realism, the patriarchy, prose that just begs to be read aloud, the intricacies of language, #metoo and low-key sexual assault in our teen years, and a world in which one doesn’t know what is real and what is not. We spent almost a hour pulling apart and re-reading the experimental story Especially Heinous, the very story that seems to simultaneously make and break the collection. I have never read anything like this collection, Machado plays with language and prose and plot and characterisation exquisitely. If I had to pick a winner for this prize, it would be this.
Kumukanda means initiation in North Western Zambia and its surrounding areas, and Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda speaks through poetry of the initiations in the modern world – mixtapes, sex, late nights, changing rooms, call backs, and campus rights. My favourite moment in the collection was a nostalgia for the lost songs — those you recorded on tape and committed to memory but “come to recognise by sound and not name” — and held on to the theme “in the faint hope you might know it when it finds you, in a far flung cafe, as you stand to pay, frozen, and the barista has to ask if you’re okay”. It’s a fresh and addictive poetry collection (with a cover that reminds me of Lorde’s Melodrama).
The winner of The International Dylan Thomas Prize will be announced on the 10th of May. I know these authors aren’t as young as those I teach, but in keeping with the spirit of the prize shortlisted authors participate in educational opportunities to engage youth in reading and international literature!
Hope, education, literature, youth — this prize stands for everything I believe in.
So, go read these books! Celebrate youth!