Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize 2021 reveals diverse and inclusive shortlist of bold new voices



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Swansea, 25 March 2021: The shortlist for one of the world’s largest literary prizes for young writers – the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize – is announced today, featuring a raft of bold new voices that challenge expectations in a compelling exploration of survival, identity, belonging and what it means to be ‘other’ in our world today.


Comprising of five novels and one short story collection, including four debuts and four women, the shortlist is:


  • Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat (Picador) – short story collection (Syria/USA)
  • Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis (HarperCollins, 4th Estate) – novel (USA)
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber) – novel (Nigeria/USA)
  • Pew by Catherine Lacey (Granta) – novel (USA)
  • Luster by Raven Leilani (Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – novel (USA)
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins, 4th Estate) – novel (USA)

Amongst the contenders for this prestigious £20,000 prize are two of the most talked about breakout novels of recent times: New York City native Raven Leilani has been recognised for the brutal and brilliant Luster, her razor-sharp debut about what it means to be a black millennial woman in America; and Kate Elizabeth Russell has been chosen by the judges for her darkly shocking exploration of an abusive relationship and sexual consent in My Dark Vanessa, an era-defining novel described as ‘a package of dynamite’ by Stephen King.


The two further debut voices in contention are Texan Rye Curtis and Kingdomtide, his story of suspense and resilience that combines an enthralling narrative of two unforgettable characters with vivid nature writing, and Syria born and Manchester based Dima Alzayat, whose first short story collection – Alligator and Other Stories – captures how it feels to be ‘other’ whilst at home: as a Syrian, as an Arab, as an immigrant, as a woman.


The final novelists completing the line-up are one of Granta Magazine’s Best Young American Novelists Catherine Lacey for her third novel Pew, a foreboding, captivating and fearlessly astute fable revolving around a silent stranger found sleeping in the church of a small American town; and Igbo and Tamil, non-binary author Akwaeke Emezi and their boundary breaking New York Times bestseller The Death of Vivek Oji, a visceral yet tender exploration into gender, family and selfhood.


The six strong shortlist was selected by a judging panel chaired by award-winning writer, publisher and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Namita Gokhale alongside founder and director of the Bradford Literature Festival, Syima Aslam, poet Stephen Sexton, writer Joshua Ferris and novelist and academic Francesca Rhydderch.


This year’s winner will be revealed at a virtual ceremony on 13 May, the eve of International Dylan Thomas Day.

Namita Gokhale, Chair of Judges, said: “We are thrilled to present this year’s extraordinary shortlist – it is truly a world-class writing showcase of the highest order from six exceptional young writers. 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.”


Francesca Rhydderch on Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat: “Dima Alzayat’s visceral, innovative Alligator & Other Stories marks the arrival of a major new talent. While the range of styles and stories is impressively broad, there is a unity of voice and tone here which must have been so very difficult to achieve, and a clear sense that all these disparate elements are part of an overriding, powerful examination of identity.”


Joshua Ferris on Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis: “Kingdomtide is a propulsively readable and frequently very funny book about the resources, personal and natural, necessary to survive a patently absurd world. The winning voice of Texas-native Cloris Waldrip artfully takes us through her eighty-eight-day ordeal in the wilds of Montana as the inimitable drunk and park ranger Debra Lewis searches for her. This fine novel combines the perfect modern yarn with something transcendent, lyrical and wise.”


Namita Gokhale on The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: The Death of Vivek Oji’ by Akwaeke Emezi is a powerful novel that carries the authenticity of cultural and emotional context. The story unfolds brilliantly, with the prescient foreboding about Vivek Oji’s death already announced in the brief line that constitutes the opening chapter. Yet the suspense is paced and carefully maintained until the truth is finally communicated in the final chapter. A triumph of narrative craft.” 


Francesca Rhydderch on Pew by Catherine Lacey: “In this brilliant novel Catherine Lacey shows herself to be completely unafraid as a writer, willing to tackle the uglier aspects of a fictional small town in America, where a stranger’s refusal to speak breeds paranoia and unease. Beautifully written, sharply observed, and sophisticated in its simplicity, Pew is a book I’m already thinking of as a modern classic.”


Syima Aslam on Luster by Raven Leilani:Sharp and incisive, Luster speaks a fearless truth that takes no hostages. Leilani is unflinchingly observant about the realities of being a young, black woman in America today and revelatory when it comes to exploring unconventional family life and 21st century adultery, in this darkly comic and strangely touching debut.”


Stephen Sexton on My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: “My Dark Vanessa is an articulate, uncompromising and compelling novel about abuse, its long trail of damage and its devastating iterations. In Vanessa, Russell introduces us to a character of immense complexity, whose rejection of victimhood—in favour of something more like love—is tragic and unforgettable. Timely, harrowing, of supreme emotional intelligence, My Dark Vanessa is the story of one girl; of many girls, and of the darknesses of western literature.”

For further information including interview requests, please contact Midas:

Hannah McMillan: hannah.mcmillan@midaspr.co.uk | 07971 086649