Multi-award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus has been named winner of the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award for his debut, The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins).
The £5,000 prize marks a year of honours for the 33-year-old writer from Hackney, east London. The Perseverance has already won the Ted Hughes Prize, the Rathbones Folio Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for numerous others. The announcement was made at a ceremony at The London Library in central London on Thursday evening (5th December).
Ranging across history and continents, the collection explores issues as wide-ranging as the poet’s diagnosis with deafness as a child, his mixed-heritage experience, masculinity, and his father’s alcoholism and decline into dementia.
Antrobus beat off competition from the White Review Short Story Prize winner Julia Armfield, in the running for her debut short story collection, Salt Slow (Picador); as well as British-Brazilian novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler; and Kim Sherwood, a writer and creative writing teacher. Publishers submitted in record numbers this year, so judging chair and Sunday Times literary editor Adam Holgate added writer, editor and bookseller Nick Rennison and the University of Warwick’s Gonzalo C Garcia to the existing panel, which included writers Kate Clanchy and Victoria Hislop.
After winning the award, Antrobus told The Bookseller that his journey to publication had been far from easy: “No one wanted to publish the book and so I ended up on a small press, but I’m so glad I did because I got to work with Penned in the Margins. Tom Chivers [my editor] has been so supportive since he read the first version of the manuscript—he loved it. This was poems and writing I had been living with for so long and I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell, if it was any good. I finally got encouragement from him [saying], ‘I want to publish this’. And it was interesting that I had written two books and he cut it in half. I thought I had been writing one book but he cut it in half and said this is the book [which became The Perseverance].”
He also revealed that Chivers had to restrain him from tinkering any more with the manuscript once it was finished. Antrobus said: “It was great to have someone to tell me when to stop, otherwise I would have just carried on writing and writing and re-writing… He had to physically take the manuscript off me and block my email so I would stop sending him emails. He had to block me off so it was finished and done. Poets, we need that—we need to be told when to stop.”
Clanchy said: “Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance draws together the worlds of performance and page poetry and speaks for his Jamaican-British heritage and his d/Deaf communities in a way that is completely contemporary; but it was the humanity of the book, its tempered kindness, and its commitment not just to recognising difference, but to the difficult act of forgiveness, that made us confident we had found a winner for this extraordinary year.”
Hislop said: “Raymond Antrobus takes us into a world unknown to most of us... a silent world where words have new meanings and often greater weight. He writes in a very personal way and one which really affects an open-hearted reader. I am excited about what he will write in the future.”
Holgate added: “What’s most impressive about Raymond’s book is the way he so subtly weaves his disparate themes together—about deafness, his Anglo-Carribean heritage, his relationship with his father—into a collection that is both very personal and immensely resonant. The result is a memoir in verse very, very affecting, and fresh."
Antrobus joins Sarah Howe, Max Porter, Sally Rooney and Adam Weymouth as the fifth featured by the Young Writer of the Year Award since it returned from a seven-year break in 2015.
Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father, who lived separately. As a child Antrobus was wrongly thought to have learning difficulties until, at the age of six, his deafness was discovered. He worked in different jobs—removals, gyms, swimming pools, security—before becoming a teacher.
As an emerging writing, he found early mentorship from various poets and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London, and has established spoken word and poetry collectives.
Antrobus has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London. He was the first ever poet to win the £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize in May, and used some of the prize money to mentor a group of deaf children at his old school, Blanche Nevile School for Deaf Children in north London. He also donated some of the prize fund to groups of students from both Blanche Nevile and Oak Lodge Deaf School in Wandsworth, to enable them to go on poetry, theatre and literature trips throughout the year.
This is the first year the University of Warwick—home to the acclaimed Warwick Writing Programme—acts as the title sponsor of the prize, following two years as its associate partner.
The winner's package includes a bespoke 10-week residency at the University of Warwick, in addition to £5,000 in prize money. New in 2019 is a year’s membership of The London Library, which will be given to the winner, as well as the three shortlisted writers.
Administered by the Society of Authors, the Young Writer of the Year Award works with a growing network of partners, including the British Council. The award began almost 30 years ago, for the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35. Last year’s prize went to travel author Adam Weymouth.
Penned in the Margins launched 15 years ago and is based in east London.