British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus has been named winner of the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award for his critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning debut The Perseverance.
The award marks an unprecedented year of honours for the 33-year-old writer from Hackney, east London. The Perseverance, published by the small press Penned in the Margins, 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 last night.
Ranging across history and continents, the collection explores issues as wide-ranging as the poet’s diagnosis with deafness as a child, mixed heritage experience, masculinity and his father’s alcoholism and later decline into dementia.
Judge Kate Clanchy said: “The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award is special because it looks to the future: we wanted to find a writer who both speaks for now and who we were confident would continue to produce valuable, central work. Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance draws together the worlds of performance and page poetry and speaks for his Jamaican British heritage and his 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.”
Judge Victoria 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 and I am excited about what he will write in the future.”
Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times, said: “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.”
Clanchy told the Irish Times: “The worlds of performance and page poetry have been separate and mutually envious for too long. Raymond Antrobus is genuinely a start of both, a champion of the slams and mesmeric performer whose work also is also intricate and delicate of the page and is complex enough to stand up to the most rigorous critical scrutiny. There’s a maturity and kindness of view point, particularly in the complex and loving portrait of his father, which makes him outstanding for a young writer.”
Antrobus joins Sarah Howe, Max Porter, Sally Rooney and Adam Weymouth as the fifth 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 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 – 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.
Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. They lived separately, but poetry had a presence in both households. 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 poets such as Malika Booker, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Roger Robinson, who were creating a vital mentoring network for underrepresented poets at the time, and has since 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 went on to become a founding member of the spoken word showcase Chill Pill and the Keats House Poets Forum.
Antrobus has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London. He used some of the winning money from the Rathbones Folio Prize (he was the first ever poet to win the £30,000 prize) to mentor a group of deaf children at his old school, Blanche Nevile School for Deaf Children, and for groups of students from both Blanche Nevile and Oak Lodge Deaf School, where his former headteacher now works, to go on poetry, theatre and literature trips throughout the year.
The judges have chosen Antrobus from a shortlist that also contained The White Review Short Story Prize winner Julia Armfield, British-Brazilian novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler, and writer and creative writing teacher Kim Sherwood. 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 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, to provide a critical support system to the very best talent at work right now.
Past winners are: Adam Weymouth, Kings of the Yukon (2018); Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (2017); Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2016); Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (2015); Ross Raisin, God’s Own Country (2009); Adam Foulds, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008); Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (2007), Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination (2004); William Fiennes, The Snow Geese (2003); Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2001); Sarah Waters, Affinity (2000); Paul Farley, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1999); Patrick French, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (1998); Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997); Katherine Pierpoint, Truffle Beds (1996); Andrew Cowan, Pig (1995); William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1994); Simon Armitage, Kid (1993); Caryl Phillips, Cambridge (1992); and Helen Simpson, Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories (1991).