The SI Leeds Literary Prize is the UK’s only prize for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women. A biennial award, patrons include Bonnie Greer, Bidisha, Dreda Sy Mitchell and Yasmin Alibhai Brown. With this year’s prize award ceremony in October, writer and prize advocate Irenosen Okojie talks to author and this year’s prize, judge chair, Kerry Young.
Tell us why you got involved with the SI Leeds Literary Prize?
I got involved with the prize because as a relative newcomer I know myself how important it is to feel that your work is being recognised, encouraged and supported, especially if you are telling the stories of people and places generally under-represented in UK mainstream literary cultures. In giving voice to the work of Black and Asian women authors, the SI Leeds Literary Prize is critical. So I was honoured to be invited to be a part of it.
What do you think makes it different from other prizes out there?
It’s the only prize for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women writers. That’s the first thing. Secondly, it’s the opportunities it offers not just in the cash awards but, for the winning author, to have a free place on an Arvon creative writing course of their choice; and for Peepal Tree Press to consider their manuscript for publication. That is huge. And for the runner-up and the other shortlisted authors there is a combination of writer development support and manuscript assessment from The Literary Consultancy; and one-to-one professional development support from Peepal Tree Press. So the prize is an all round package to help writers develop not just reward them for their existing achievements.
What has the process of working with the other judges been like?
It’s been challenging in a positive way and companionable. The administration and support from the prize co-ordinator has also been highly efficient, which really helped the whole process. This was my first time as a prize judge and I’ve learnt a lot from reading the submissions and engaging in the panel discussions and email exchanges. It’s been good to work with a group of women so committed to doing justice to the prize and the participating writers. It’s felt like a very respectful process.
What were you looking for in work that was submitted?
We were looking for work that grabbed our attention; something that was going to grip you from the outset and make you want to turn the page; a story that intrigued you with interesting themes and authentic characters you wanted to care about. Plus it had to be well written in terms of structure, narrative style, etc.
How were the manuscripts assessed and chosen?
All of the 44 submissions were read by two ‘sifters’ appointed by the prize organisers. They whittled that number down to 26. All of these were then read by every member of the panel and after meeting and discussing them, we agreed a longlist of 12. We then revisited the longlist to agree a shortlist of six. The entire process took about four months. It wasn’t always easy to agree.
What was it about the six manuscripts selected that resonated with the judges?
They have the things I mentioned earlier – being (relatively) well written with interesting stories and characters. They are carefully observed. Sometimes containing quirky and sometimes fascinating observations of who we are (as human beings) and how we live. They are insightful and poignant; sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholy. They pay attention to issues of politics – for example of race and gender. They speak to the common heart – love, loss, jealously, betrayal, guilt, forgiveness, redemption.
There’s been a real issue with the lack of diversity in publishing. How do you think the industry can be more inclusive?
Honestly, I think it’s a two-way street. It’s a funny, unpredictable business this one we are in where nothing is guaranteed. That said, I think the industry could be more open to being imaginative about who readers are given the incredibly diverse and multi-cultural society in which we live. Also, I think as writers we should always be striving to develop and improve. Our work has to be up to scratch that’s the point. Beyond that, given the vagaries of the publishing world, under pressure as it is, then anything might happen. Sometimes it’s just down to luck – your manuscript landing on the desk of the right editor at precisely the right moment in time.
You had a tough road to publishing success. How did you stay focused and not get disillusioned?
Two reasons. I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a work of fiction that someone would be prepared to publish. Secondly, I left Jamaica when I was young and did not get a chance to say goodbye to my father who died a few short years later. ‘Pao’ was a gift to him and I wasn’t going to give up until I’d written it to the best of my ability.
Name three books you read at three pivotal points in your life and why you think they had an impact.
James Baldwin Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. Previous to that I’d had ‘classical’ English literature urged upon me. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities. At seventeen years-old James Baldwin was the first time I recognised something of my own experience and realised that I wanted to read.
William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury. Because even publishing in 1929 Mississippi it was possible to write about racism and relationships between white and black people, and tell it how it was without blame or rancour. It was possible to observe without bitterness or resentment. It reminded me of the importance of seeking to see the basic humanity of people. And made me realise that, whatever our flaws, we are redeemable.
Toni Morrison Song of Solomon. I knew that the experience of being black in an alien ‘white world’ could be raw and brutal (like Baldwin) but what Morrison taught me was two things. Firstly, that pain could be written like poetry. It could be beautiful. Secondly, we could just write for ourselves. We could tell our stories for ourselves, not for the white gaze.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
- Don’t give up no matter how long it takes or how hard it feels.
- Seek independent feedback and take account of it.
- You never write the final version first time. Writing is re-writing.
To find out who is on this year’s shortlist click here.
To book tickets for the SI Leeds Literary Prize London events, see links below.
To book tickets for the SI Leeds Ilkley Festival event announcing the prizewinner on 15 October.