Debut authors dominate on 'extraordinary' Dylan Thomas prize shortlist

From Kate Elizabeth Russell’s exploration of an abusive relationship, My Dark Vanessa, to Raven Leilani’s Luster, a look at what it means to be a black millennial woman in America today, the shortlist for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas prize is “a world-class writing showcase of the highest order”, said judges.

The £20,000 prize goes to the best literary work in English by an author aged 39 or under, in remembrance of the Welsh poet, who died at that age. Four debut works made the cut this year, with American Rye Curtis chosen for his first novel Kingdomtide. The story of the sole survivor of a plane crash, and the park ranger who sets out to find her, Kingdomtide is “a propulsively readable and frequently very funny book about the resources, personal and natural, necessary to survive a patently absurd world,” said judges.

The Syria-born, Manchester-based Dima Alzayat is also shortlisted for her first book, short story collection Alligator and Other Stories, an exploration of what it means to be “other”, as a Syrian, an Arab, an immigrant and a woman. Judges said it “marks the arrival of a major new talent”, also describing Leilani’s debut novel Luster as “sharp and incisive”, and “revelatory when it comes to exploring unconventional family life and 21st century adultery”, and Russell’s first novel My Dark Vanessa as “timely, harrowing, [and] of supreme emotional intelligence”.

The Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi was chosen for The Death of Vivek Oji, which follows the life and untimely death of the eponymous character and which judges called “a powerful novel that carries the authenticity of cultural and emotional context”, while American writer Catherine Lacey’s Pew completes the shortlist. Lacey’s third novel, Pew tells of a stranger in a small town, whose refusal to speak breeds unease.

Namita Gokhale, chair of judges, said the shortlist this year was “extraordinary”. “It is truly a world-class writing showcase of the highest order from six exceptional young writers,” said Gokhale, who is a writer, publisher and co-director of the Jaipur literature festival. “I want to press each and every one of these bold, inventive and distinctive books into the hands of readers, and celebrate how they challenge preconceptions, ask new questions about how we define identity and our relationships, and how we live together in this world. Congratulations to these tremendously talented writers – they are master storytellers in every sense of the word.”

The winner of the award will be announced on 13 May, joining former recipients of the Dylan Thomas prize including Guy Gunaratne and Max Porter.

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