Santanu Bhattacharya has won Spread the Word’s Life Writing Prize 2021, with "The Nicer One", hailed by judges as a "gut-punch of a piece".
The story explores a chance encounter with a childhood classmate that sets off a series of difficult memories, and a carefully-constructed yet fragile life begins to unravel. Themes covered include LGBTQ rights, childhood bullying, sexual abuse, mental health and immigration.
Now in its fifth year, the prize is run in association with Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre and was established to find and develop the best new life writing from new and emerging writers. Bhattacharya wins £1,500, a writing mentor, an Arvon creative writing course and membership to the Royal Society of Literature.
The judges were Damian Barr, Frances Wilson and Catherine Cho, who selected Bhattacharya from a longlist of 12, announced in April. Cho commented: “'The Nicer One' is a powerful, gut-punch of a piece that reads like a taut thriller. It is evocative, atmospheric, and incredibly moving in its depiction of schoolboy cruelty. I felt moved and haunted by the piece and the steadiness of its voice, it’s one that will stay with me for a long time.”
Bhattacharya grew up in India. In 2021, he won a London Writers Award and was selected for the Tin House Writers’ Workshop in Portland, USA. His non-fiction essays have appeared in the Oxford Student and Feminism in India. He has degrees in public policy from Oxford University and in engineering from the National University of Singapore. After having lived in eight cities across three countries, he now lives in north London.
He said: "I'm so delighted to have won this prize. It means a lot to be recognised at this early stage of my writing career. The Life Writing Prize is a platform like no other, and celebrates the kind of stories we need more people to tell. Writing this piece was both a haunting and healing experience, and has helped me explore a certain vulnerability that I didn't know I could write about."
Two writers were also highly commended for the prize. Carla Jenkins’ "Carving" was written in part to capture memories of her father, and is both an exploration of the father-daughter bond and the fragility of remembrance. Matt Taylor’s "Tromode House" recounts the chain of events that led him and his brother being taken into care. As part of their prize, they will each work with a writing mentor and receive £500. Mentors for Bhattacharya, Jenkins and Taylor are the writers Max Porter, Winnie M Li, and Katy Massey.
Ruth Harrison, director of Spread the Word, said the prize "continues to find talented writers from across the UK and the stories they want to tell and we are thrilled to announce this year’s winner and highly commended writers". She added: "The Life Writing Prize is unique in terms of its accessibility and reach across the UK and also the development support it gives to writers to move their writing careers forward. We are seeing the impact of the prize, as its writers are now being published and changing the type of life writing that is being read".
An anthology featuring the 12 longlisted writers and their work is published by Spread the Word online and available to download in PDF format. To celebrate five years of the prize, Spread the Word has published a pamphlet featuring articles and new pieces of life writing from former judges and winners. The prize, which is free to enter, is funded by Joanna Munro.