Durham Book Festival: the Gordon Burn Prize 2019


The inviting setup at the Gala, with the Durham Distillery’s gin stand serving complimentary drinks to the guests, made it hard to believe that there had been a last-minute change to the venue simply days before the festival’s launch: The Gordon Burn Prize event was impeccably organised by New Writing North, successfully allowing its guests to familiarise themselves with the shortlisted authors through readings and discourse, leading up to the final announcement with sustained energy and excitement.

Starting off with a brief introduction from Claire Malcolm, the Chief Executive of New Writing North, and then followed by a brief speech by Angus Grimell on Burn’s literary legacy and his artistic blurring of fact and fiction, it was made clear to the audience that the shortlisted candidates were selected based on their inventive canonisation of real movements and snapshots of history. From the Trojans in Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, to the tragedies of the queer scene in New York depicted in Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House, each selection breathed life and passion into these histories through their words and creative decisions, like Burn himself aspired to do.

shortlisted candidates were selected based on their inventive canonisation of real movements and snapshots of history

The shortlist was a line-up of excellent literary contribution, encapsulating colourful experiences from different corners of global culture, meditating on perceptive issues of blackness in Heads of The Colored People by Nafissa Thompson Spires, to a periscopic view into 70s Belfast and the operations of the IRA in David Keenan’s For the Good Times. Despite a mutual revolutionary passion and bending of traditional form, each piece of writing differed in their approach and style. Max Porter’s Lanny plays with the ideas of childlike perspective, while Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other explores the heterogeneity of characters that represent the various faces of the black woman and non-binary individual, painting vivid descriptions despite different voyeuristic viewpoints. 

The event allowed each writer to invite the audiences into the enclosures of their crafted worlds that, despite being rooted in human experience, told stories that were rich with an exciting unfamiliarity. Each writer read out a section from their novels, contributing an individualistic animation and vividness. This created an infectious energy, the most memorable reading being Keenan’s, who brought a striking performative nature to his words. Despite being unable to leave the US for the event, the audience weren’t robbed of a reading from Spires’ brilliant book. The organisers screened a reading by Spires filmed in her office, however, it was the following Q&A session where her absence was felt the most.

The Q&A session was opened with a brilliant question by Katy Shaw on how contemporary movements had affected the writers’ creative decisions and urgency: this gave the audience a deeper look into the psyche of these individuals and the mental conversations that fuelled the narratives.

Frequent mentions of the Me Too movement, racism, homophobia and xenophobia were made, but it was especially interesting to note that most authors found that their works didn’t start off as topical and only became so, almost prophetically, during the course of their writing experiences. It was refreshing to listen to the interaction between the authors and their philosophies and experiences, creating almost a mutually supportive atmosphere of discourse despite their differences. 

The second half of the event built a restless anticipation for the final announcement, presenting a haunting musical performance by Rachel Unthank and her acapella folk troupe. After a lengthy setlist, Malcolm approached the podium and began introducing the winner.

It was immediately clear: David Keenan was the 2019 recipient of the Gordon Burn prize, and promptly after the announcement, a deafening stream of applause and exclamation ensued. Whether one had read For the Good Times or not, he had won the audience over with his candour and spirit. Dedicating the prize to his illiterate Irish father who helped him cultivate a fascination for the magic of books, Keenan displayed an endearing humility that in itself made him incredibly deserving of the accolade.

A delightful celebration of contemporary literature in all its shades and hues

The spirit of the event constituted of a mutual admiration and reverence for the power of literature, summarised perfectly by a question posed by Keenan in an earlier segment: “People say they don’t believe in magic, but they believe in art; isn’t that the same thing?” Ultimately, the Gordon Burn Prize was a delightful celebration of contemporary literature in all its shades and hues, undoubtedly making it a memorable highlight of the Durham Book Festival. 

Image credit by Kimberley Farmer on Unsplash

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