Poet Jay Bernard has been named winner of the 2020 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, for their collection Surge (Chatto & Windus).
The announcement was made in a digital ceremony by the Sunday Times’ literary editor Andrew Holgate, alongside 2020 judges Houman Barekat, Sebastian Faulks, Tessa Hadley and Kit de Waal.
Bernard will receive £5,000 for their winning collection, which explores the 1981 New Cross Fire, in which 13 young Black people were killed. Initially believed to be a racist attack and dubbed the New Cross Massacre, the cause of the fire was never determined, and the perceived indifference with which the tragedy was met by the state triggered a new era of race relations in Britain.
Across the poems of Surge, Bernard traces a line from the New Cross Fire to the "towers of blood" of the Grenfell fire, while exploring the deeply personal stories of the communities that it affected, as well as the wider context of Black British history.
Bernard is also the author of the pamphlets "Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl" (Tall Lighthouse, 2008), "English Breakfast" (Math Paper Press, 2013) and "The Red and Yellow Nothing" (Ink Sweat & Tears Press, 2016), which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2017. A film programmer at BFI Flare and an archivist at Statewatch, they also participated in The Complete Works II project in 2014 in which they were mentored by Kei Miller. In 2019, Bernard was selected by Jackie Kay as one of Britain’s 10 best Black writers for the British Council and National Centre for Writing ’s International Literature Showcase. In 2018, Jay Bernard won the Ted Hughes Award for the performance piece "Surge: Side A" (produced by Speaking Volumes in 2017), in which many of the poems from Surge were first featured.
Bernard joins Raymond Antrobus, Adam Weymouth, Sally Rooney, Max Porter and Sarah Howe as the sixth writer in the line-up of new voices spotted and supported by the Young Writer of the Year Award, since it returned from a seven-year break in 2015. With an alumni list since the award began 29 years ago that includes everyone from Robert Macfarlane to Zadie Smith, from Sarah Waters to Simon Armitage, the award is administered for the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35.
The judges chose Bernard from a shortlist of five that also contained Catherine Cho (for the memoir Inferno, Bloomsbury), poet Seán Hewitt (for Tongues of Fire, Jonathan Cape), alongside the novelists Naoise Dolan (for Exciting Times, W&N) and Marina Kemp (for Nightingale, Fourth Estate). The winner package includes a bespoke 10-week residency at the University of Warwick, in addition to £5,000 in prize money. The 2020 winner will also receive two years’ membership to The London Library, while the remaining four shortlistees will all receive a year’s membership in addition to this.
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