The 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so the longlist contained poetry collections as well as novels and short stories. Remaining on the shortlist are these six books (five novels and one short story collection; four of the works are debuts):

  • Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat – Stories of the Syrian American experience.
  • Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis – A novel about an elderly plane crash victim and the alcoholic park ranger who tries to find her. (See Annabel’s review.)
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – A coming-of-age story set in Nigeria.
  • Pew by Catherine Lacey – A mysterious fable about a stranger showing up in a Southern town in the week before an annual ritual.
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – A young Black woman and would-be painter negotiates a confusing romantic landscape and looks for meaning beyond dead-end jobs.
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – A nuanced look at the #MeToo phenomenon through the prism of one young woman’s relationship with her teacher.

It’s an American-dominated set this year, but, refreshingly, five of the six nominees are women or non-binary. I happen to have already read the last three of the novels on the list. I’m most keen to try Alligator and Other Stories and Kingdomtide and hope to still have a chance to read them. No review copies reached me in time, so today I’m giving an overview of the list.

This is never an easy prize to predict, but if I had to choose between the few that I’ve read, I would want Kate Elizabeth Russell to win for My Dark Vanessa.

(The remaining information in this post comes from the official Midas PR press release.)


The 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, says: “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.”

15 responses

  1. I enjoyed Alligator and Other Stories but wished I hadn’t read it via NetGalley. The fragmentary, titular story needs to be read in print. Keen to read Luster, Pew and Kingdomtide particularly after Annabel’s very positive review yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I finally heard today that a copy of Alligator and Other Stories is on the way to me. They’ve had delays with some publishers. So I will look forward to reading it at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for the link. I would be interested to see what you think about Kingdomtide, especially the dark comedy in Ranger Lewis’s drinking habits. That’s the only book I’ve read from the shortlist – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have no idea which will win, but I’d wager it’ll be a woman…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it seems like time for a woman to win, doesn’t it? (After men the last three years in a row.) I wasn’t a huge fan of Emezi’s Freshwater so didn’t prioritize reading their new one, but otherwise it’s an appealing shortlist. As has started to happen with the Booker, there’s sure to be grumbling about Americans dominating…

      It’s funny that I’d literally never heard of Kingdomtide until Eleanor named it her book of the year last year. From your review and hers, I know it’s one I’ll have to read sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll keep my copy for next time I see you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What a kind offer! Only if you didn’t want to keep it yourself. I do hope there’ll be live events in London later this year.


  3. The only one I’ve read is My Dark Vanessa, but am keen to read Pew.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll love that one, Cathy. Read it for Novellas in November (if not before!).


      1. It’s a novella? Cool!


      2. Hmm, in my memory it was, but now that I look it up on the library catalogue it says 208 pages. A quick read, anyway.


  4. Oh I just do not fancy any of these! Am I too dull and pedestrian? Probably!


    1. No? I thought the Syrian stories might appeal. (I haven’t read them yet, but I’ll review them when I have.)


  5. I’m interested in all of these for different reasons, but I am always a little hesitant when I hear someone describe a story collection’s contents as being broad; it makes me wonder if it’s not simply someone’s MFA portfolio showing off all their cultivated and performative talents, before they’ve actually figured out what they’re really good at, y’know? Nonetheless, I’d happily any one of them if it fell in my lap right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Luster won. It wouldn’t have been my choice (not least because it’s already won some major awards), but I can see why they loved the freshness of the voice. I’ll report back on how the Syrian short stories are.


  6. […] (My previous Dylan Thomas Prize coverage: I reviewed a few nominees for the blog tours in 2019 and 2020, and introduced the shortlist in 2021.) […]


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