The winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award, a £10,000 prize for an unpublished writer, is Sharlene Wen-Ning Teo for Ponti, a work of fiction about "a misfit adolescent girl growing up in sultry, sweaty Singapore".
The prize was founded to lend financial assistance to first-time writers to help them to finish their books. It recognises the "support [late literary agent Deborah Rogers] gave to new writers, wherever they came from". Rogers (pictured) died in May 2014.
Author Ian McEwan - who was Rogers' client for almost 40 years - presented Wen-Ning with the £10,000 prize at a small ceremony in London this evening (5th May).
It followed chair of the judges Shena Mackay's introduction of each of the shortlisted authors. The two runners-up were Imogen Hermes Gowar for her historical novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, exploring the historical experiences of women, and Cambridge scholar and journalist Guy Stagg for his work of non-fiction, The Crossway. They were each presented with a book token of £100.
The three-strong shortlist was whittled down from a longlist of eight by judges Mackay, Owen Sheers and Kate Summerscale. This longlist was chosen by agents within Rogers Coleridge & White, after receiving 885 entries.
The winner, Singaporean writer Wen-Ning, is currently in her second year of a PhD focusing on Singaporean and Malaysian trauma writing at UEA. Her writing has featured in such publications as Esquire, Magma Poetry and Eunoia Review. Ponti is her first novel.
Mackay commented: "My fellow judges, Kate Summerscale, Owen Sheers and I, were very impressed by the high standard and diversity of all the longlist entries we read but we were unanimous in our choice of a strong shortlist of three. Each of those entries show considerable merit, originality and promise and, interestingly, represent three different categories of writing – contemporary fiction, non-fiction and historical fiction. We are delighted to choose as our overall winner Ponti, Sharlene Teo’s strange and compelling evocation of a misfit adolescent girl growing up in sultry, sweaty Singapore. Despite its setting, Owen Sheers calls it a breath of fictional fresh air’. The Crossway, Guy Stagg’s breath-taking and meditative account of a pilgrimage, both personal and physical, across the Alps in winter, veering from the awe-inspiring to the amusingly absurd, is a worthy runner-up, as is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. This exploration of credulity and corruption in louche eighteenth-century London has, according to Kate Summerscale, ‘great momentum and confidence, narrative brio, but the creepy mermaid hints at the darkness beneath the romanticism and nostalgia of this kind of historical fiction’. Overall, we think Deborah would be thrilled at the quality of the entries.
Ian McEwan, presenter of the Award, said: “Ponti is a remarkable first novel in the making. With brilliant descriptive power and human warmth, Sharlene Wen-Ning Teo summons the darker currents of modernity - environmental degradation, the suffocating allure of the sparkling modern city and its cataracts of commodities and corrupted language. Against this, her characters glow with life and humour and minutely observed desperation. I read this extract longing for more.”
Gill Coleridge, chair of Rogers Coleridge & White and director of the Deborah Rogers Foundation, said: “Deborah was never more excited than when she had discovered an extraordinary new voice and would have been thrilled to read the work of these three very talented new writers at the beginning of their writing careers. The response to the Writers’ Award has been very encouraging on all fronts so I can say tonight that we plan to continue this Award on a biennial basis in years ahead. Next year we will be announcing a bursary for a young person working in the publishing and agenting business.”
Wen-Ning, will appear on Saturday 28th May at the Hay Festival at an event to celebrate the life of Deborah Rogers. In attendance will be Peter Carey, Rogers' widower Michael Berkeley, m.d. of RCW Peter Straus, and chair of RCW Coleridge.