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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, a fearless exploration of the 1981 New Cross Fire, in which thirteen 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.

Jay Bernard is 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 and in which they were mentored by Kei Miller. In 2019 Jay was selected by Jackie Kay as one of Britain’s ten best BAME 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.

The judges chose Bernard from a shortlist of 5 that also contained Catherine Cho (for the memoir Inferno), poet Seán Hewitt (for Tongues of Fire), alongside the novelists Naoise Dolan (for Exciting Times) and Marina Kemp (for Nightingale).

For the second year running the University of Warwick – home to the acclaimed Warwick Writing Programme – acts as the title sponsor of the prize. 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 2 years’ membership to The London Library, while the remaining four shortlistees will all receive a year’s membership in addition to this.

Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times, said: “ This has been a very strong year for the Young Writer Award, and all five authors on our shortlist deserve huge congratulations for their outstanding books. When we came to the final meeting, though, there was little doubt in the judges’ minds about our winner, or about the qualities on display in Jay Bernard’s book – control, variety, passionate engagement, intense human feeling. So many previous winners of the Young Writer Award have gone on to have significant literary careers, and with Surge it feels again like we are witnessing the start of something significant.”

Jay Bernard joins Raymond Antrobus, Adam Weymouth, Sally Rooney, Max Porter and Sarah Howe as the sixth writer in an exceptional line-up of defining new voices spotted and supported by the Young Writer of the Year Award since it returned from a 7-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 – for the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35 – is an unrivalled spotter of future literary greats at the beginning of their careers.

Judge Houman Barekat said: “Surge reads and feels like a unified whole. The collection pans seamlessly from micro level to macro level narratives; from the
lives of individuals to the broad sweep of history. These poems evoke a lost past while nodding pointedly to the struggles of the present.”

Judge Kit de Waal said: “Surge is a powerful, beautiful collection of poetry. Personal, political, unapologetic, written in the beautiful cadence of patois and black music… I absolutely loved it.”

Judge Sebastian Faulks said: “What is really remarkable about it is the way that the author has retained such a pure control over the way they tell the story, and have transformed this story into real poetry using a variety of different metres, rhythms and forms, some lyrical, some like songs, some like ballads. As a meeting of the public and the private, and in a way of looking at terrible things with an icy control, this is a formidably impressive book.”

Judge Tessa Hadley said: “You might think that this [the exploration of the New Cross Fire] would be a recipe for a kind of polemical outrage, but the poems instead subtly lift the lid on the headline story, and find the music and the pleasure and the secret heart of what happened, hidden inside.”


Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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