REVIEW: The Gordon Burn Prize

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10 October

Gala Theatre

Bessie Yuill

With a complementary gin and tonic in hand, I entered the Gala Theatre for an evening celebrating six extraordinary authors: Bernardine Evaristo, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Max Porter, Pat Barker, Niven Govinden, and this year’s winner, David Keenan. Ten years after Gordon Burn’s death, his legacy continues in this annual uplifting tribute to literary talent.

Claire Malcolm from New Writing North and editor Angus Cargill made sure that legacy was front and centre in their welcoming speeches about the writer who gave this prize its name. Professor Katy Shaw then introduced the six shortlisted authors who read extracts from their books and participated in a rousing discussion about their writing.

Pat Barker’s novel, Silence of the Girls, reshapes the Iliad around the slave girl Briseis. She read from a section where this central character is given away as a slave to Achilles, the man who had pillaged her town and killed her brother. The harrowing inner world of a typically overlooked character captivated the room, with vivid images of what war’s aftermath historically looked like for women. With her typical dry wit, Barker commented that, although reviews have compared her book to the rise of the #MeToo movement, she “never expected” a take on Homer to be topical, and that she hoped authors weren’t prophetic.

Bernadine Evaristo read from her novel Girl, Woman, Other (which has since won the Booker prize, controversially tied with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments). Its polyphonic narrative follows 12 characters, mostly black British women, through vignettes of their lives. These individuals range from a young non-binary activist to defiant 93-year-old farmer Hattie, who dominates the section we heard aloud. In the discussion afterwards, Evaristo stressed that while it had become important to her to represent different kinds of black women in literature, her characters emerged organically. Bravery in creativity was “unavoidable”, Evaristo found, when she wrote what she truly wanted to write.

Activism took centre stage in Niven Govinden’s reading of This Brutal House. Set in the vogue ball scene of 1980s New York, the novel reflects the reality of protests. As the central mother figures demand that the police investigate missing members of their community, anger and infighting emerges. Govinden explained afterwards that he was trying to cover an unwritten social history that happened to become more relevant as he was writing. He thinks that people are rediscovering the power of protest, and the strength of bodies in the streets, which his book espouses.

David Keenan gave a theatrical, charismatic reading from For The Good Times, a novel set in Belfast in the months leading up to the hunger strike of 1981. The main characters may be foot soldiers for the IRA, living amongst poverty and hyper-violence, but a sense of humour and vitality persists throughout. In the section we heard, a pub anecdote becomes poetry, which Keenan explained afterwards. He described having the revelation that working class patter is mysticism and modernity in itself: you don’t have to “artify” it. The storytelling habits of his working-class family from Belfast influenced the novel even more than someone like James Joyce.

Max Porter’s mythological take on a rural village, Lanny, balances poetry and prose in a lush ecosystem of words. The extract he read interpreted family dynamics and conflicted emotions through this uniquely lyrical style. Talking about how he used an ageless creature and background mythology to “zoom out” from current issues, Porter said that he wanted to talk about topics relevant to Britain today, but in a way that would connect to any reader. “If you get specificity right,” he concluded, “you can get universality.”

Since Nafissa Thompson-Spires was in the United States, she sent a video message of her reading an extract instead. The story she selected from Heads of the Coloured People assumes a self-conscious narrator, who endlessly clarifies why a black main character dresses and acts the way he does. This meta-textual awareness of the issues raised by race conveyed the intelligent sense of humour that threads the whole book together.

After an interval, useful for mulling over the weighty questions of theme and topicality that the authors discussed, the audience all returned to our seats. Judge Rachel Unthank then performed with her folk group, The Unthanks, filling the theatre with a delicate harmony of three voices. We were treated to a combination of American and local songs, as well as Rachel explaining some Durham vocabulary for visitors.

Finally, fellow judge Miranda Sawyer announced that David Keenan had won. He took to the stage for an emotional acceptance speech, thanking his wife, his editor, and above all his dad. A Belfast native who never learned to read or write, his father had apparently stressed the importance of books to Keenan throughout his childhood (as Keenan remarked, “I remember thinking, how the fuck would you know?”). His goal in writing For The Good Times, Keenan explains, was to produce the kind of book that his illiterate father would have wanted to read.

The experience of listening to these creative, intelligent writers discuss the background of their writing was invaluable. Despite covering such different topics and settings, all six clearly shared a sincere belief in the power of literature. Watching the seventh annual Gordon Burn prize being awarded, I think the audience shared their belief.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.

Photo copyright Marion Botella