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Dylan Thomas prize: a judge's notes


The award is as international as they come, but this year's Nevadan winner has benefited from Dylan Thomas's Welsh legacy in more ways than one

The shortlist for this year's Dylan Thomas prize – for writers under 30 – was notable for being a clean sweep for independent publishers. Congratulations to Atlantic, who had two books on the list, OneWorld, Quercus, Salt, Granta and Parthian. And the sheer length of this roll call indicates the second notable aspect of the shortlist: it wasn't really very short. A total of seven writers – a testament to the quality of the longlist rather than judgely indecision – were in competition for the £30,000 prize, which in the end myself and my fellow judges, led by Hay festival supremo Peter Florence and including musician and BBC 6 Music presenter Cerys Matthews unanimously awarded to American writer Claire Vaye Watkins for her remarkably assured and arresting collection of stories, Battleborn, which draws on both her own family history – her father, who died when she was six, was a close associate of Charles Manson and testified against him– as well as life among the casinos, brothels and deserts of her native Nevada.

Vaye Watkins picked up the award at a ceremony in Thomas's own "ugly lovely town" of Swansea on Thursday night. (It is a melancholy quirk of a prize that celebrates youth that it is awarded on a date determined by the tragically early death of Thomas himself, aged only 39, in 1953.) Despite the name and location, the prize has never been exclusively for Welsh writers – although one, the poet Jemma L King, was shortlisted this year – but has always been an international competition that was way ahead of the Booker in allowing Americans to join in from the outset. This year's hopefuls came from Australia via Sudan, India via Missouri, South Africa, Nevada, England and Wales. All forms of fictional writing are accepted and so two volumes of poetry (King's The Shape of a Forest and James Brookes's Sins of the Leopard) were up against a brace of short-story collections (Vaye Watkins's Battleborn and Prajwal Parajuly's The Gurkha's Daughter), and three novels (The Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach, Call It Dog by Marli Roode and Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba).

The award's focus on youth is an acknowledgment of Thomas's own precocious gifts, which saw many of his most famous poems written well before he was 30. It is a focus that takes practical form in all the shortlistees spending a week in Swansea in the run-up to the prize – they are billeted together in a shared house, an experience one of last year's writers described as a combination of Big Brother and The Hunger Games – where they give readings and talks at local schools and colleges.

Peter Stead, prize chair and guiding spirit, says that education has always been a key element: "We're more than just a monetary award. We genuinely want to make a difference to the future of aspiring young writers. It is exciting to think that, in this way, the prize may be stimulating new young writers in Wales – and maybe even fostering the development of one of its future winners!"

Ambitious talk, but if you want an example of the way that a combination of Dylan Thomas and education can pay off, look no further than Vaye Watkins herself. Speaking just after she had picked up the prize she recalled that "at school I had a teacher who made us memorise and recite two poems. One of them was Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night which I loved and I loved learning." And the other? "Stephen Crane's In the Desert, which I used as the epigraph for Battleborn."

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