Tale of rural despair wins £60,000 prize

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Dylan Thomas might have been happy to "labour by singing light/Not for ambition or bread" but he died in poverty. Most writers have to be rather relaxed about paying the rent - or the bar bills. Rachel Trezise, who last night won the EDS Dylan Thomas Award, can now breathe easy for quite a while. The new £60,000 prize, for an English language writer under the age of 30, is one of the biggest literary awards in the world.

Established to honour the work of Swansea's most famous son, the prize is backed by its most famous daughter, Catherine Zeta Jones, who named her son Dylan after the Welsh poet.

She hoped, she said, that the prize would "attract blazing literary talent from young writers all over the world".

It did. The shortlist, announced last month in London, included writers from Zimbabwe and the US as well as Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Five were shortlisted for novels - Ian Holding for Unfeeling, Liza Ward for Outside Valentine, Lucy Caldwell for Where They Were Missed, Nick Laird for Utterly Monkey and James Scudamore for The Amnesia Clinic - and one, Trezise, for a short-story collection, Fresh Apples.

All six writers have spent the best part of a week in Swansea, doing readings and workshops in local colleges and schools.

In the end, it was the writer from down the road who won over the judges, which included Menna Elfyn, a Welsh poet, Paul Watkins, an American novelist and Simon Kelner, The Independent's editor-in-chief.

"We decided not to be afraid of awarding the prize to a Welsh writer," said the screenwriter and chair of the judges, Andrew Davies, "because she did seem to us to be the most original. It was an exciting and closely fought debate. Rachel won it because she has a totally original voice which didn't remind us of anyone else."

Wearing a green silk frock she had bought on eBay, Trezise collected her award from Dylan Thomas's daughter, Aeronwy, at a gala dinner at Swansea's Brangwyn Hall.

It was Dylan Thomas's birthday and the first night of the annual Dylan Thomas festival, which takes place at the city's Dylan Thomas Centre. As if these were not Thomas references enough, Trezise's book begins with an epigraph from the poet's famous radio play, Under Milk Wood: "Oh isn't life a terrible thing, thank God?"

Looking at the facts of Trezise's life, you might well think so. Born in the Rhondda Valley in 1978, she was brought up by her mother, a barmaid and cleaner, after her parents divorced when she was four.

When she was 14, she ran away from home, working as a waitress and living in a squat. When her mother found a diary detailing allegations that she had suffered abuse, the police found her and brought her home. The case went to court but no conviction was brought.

Between the age of 16 and 18, she tried to kill herself three times. She found some solace, however, in writing stories and "really bad poems". She also discovered the work of the American writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. It was in their tales, of oppression and abuse, and in the taut drama of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, that she learnt that writing could reflect the reality of a life like hers.

The lead singer and guitarist in a punk bank, Trezise was already writing for a local music fanzine, Smack Rapunzel. Now, while studying journalism and English at the University of Glamorgan, she started to write her own story.

The result, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, an autobiographical account of a young girl growing up in the south Wales valleys against a background of sexual abuse, economic breakdown and drugs, was published by the Welsh press, Parthian, in 2000.

The following year, it was included in the Orange Futures list, an initiative set up by the Orange Prize to identify 21 of the most interesting young women writers at the turn of the century.

Her short-story collection, Fresh Apples, also set in the valleys, is suffused with the same oppressive atmosphere, of sexual violence and rural despair. "I thought short stories would be much easier," Trezise told a group of students at a reading at Swansea University the day before the prize dinner.

"They're not. These are my fictional baby-steps." They are raw and uneven, but they're also defiant and fresh. If not exactly an Under Milk Wood for our times, they certainly give the punchy, polyphonic-flavour of a corner of Wales that is largely forgotten.

"I can't even imagine how it will change my life," said Trezise, who has worked in factories making seatbelts, aerials and mugs, and is currently living on a £6,000 bursary.

"I'll do some travelling. I'd like to set some work in America." Life, it seems, is looking up.

'Mum would say knickers even when she meant pants'

This is an extract from Rachel Trezise's 'Fresh Apples'

When you get oil from a locomotive engine over the arse of your best blue jeans, it looks like shit: black and sticky.

I can see it's black, even in the dark. I stand on the sty and try to brush it with the back of my hand, bent awkward over the fence, but it sticks to my skin, and there's nowhere to wipe my hands. Laugh, they would - Rhys Davies and Kristian - if they could see me now. Don't know why I wore my best stuff. "Wear clean knickers," my mother'd say, "in case you have an accident." She'd say knickers even when she meant pants. She's a feminist, see. But it's not like anyone would notice if I was wearing pants or not. Johnny Metal said when he was at school the police would pay him at the end of the day to look for bits of fingers and bits of intestines here, before he went home for tea. If it can do that, if it can slice your tubes like green beans, who's going to notice if you had skid marks in your kecks? I can still hear the train chugging away, or perhaps it's my imagination. Over in the town I can hear drunk people singing but closer, I can hear cicadas - that noise you think only exists in American films to show you that something horrific is about to happen - it's real. It's hot too. Even in the night it's still hot and I'm panting like a dog. I'm sure it's this weather that's making me fucking nuts. I'm alive anyway; I can feel my blood pumping so it's all been a waste of time. Forget it now. Oh you want to know about it, of course you do. Nosey bastard you are. Well I'll tell you and then I'll forget, and you can forget it too. And just remember this: I'm not proud of it. Let's get that straight from the outset. The whole thing is a bloody encumbrance. (New word that, encumbrance. I found it in my father's things this morning.)

Thursday night it started, but the summer has been going on forever, for years it seems like, the sun visors down on the cafe and fruiterer's in town, the smell of barbecued food wafting on the air, and never going away.

And the smell of mountain fires, of timber crumbling and being swallowed by a rolling wave of orange flames. On the Bwlch we were, at the entrance of the forestry. There used to be a climbing frame and a set of swings made from the logs from the trees. It's gone now but we still go there, us and the car and van shaggers.

Comments