Kayo Chingonyi wins Dylan Thomas prize with poems of 'vexed celebration'

Kumukanda, the Zambian-British author’s collection exploring black masculinity, wins £30,000 award for authors aged 39 or under

The Zambian-British writer Kayo Chingonyi’s exploration of black masculinity in his debut poetry collection Kumukanda has won him the £30,000 Dylan Thomas award.

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas prize is awarded each year for the best literary work by an author aged 39 or under – the age the beloved Welsh poet was when he died. Chingonyi, who is 31, is the first British poet to win the genre-straddling award, which has gone in the past to Max Porter’s novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and Fiona McFarlane’s short-story collection The High Places.

This year, Chingonyi saw off a shortlist including Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling. Kumukanda is a Luvale language word connoting initiation, referencing both the rites of passage which boys from the Lovale people of Zambia and Angola go through to become a man, as well as initiation rites for young Londoners. Chair of judges Dai Smith praised Chingonyi’s “original and distinctive voice”, calling Kumukanda “mature and moving”.

“Unlike many other books by immigrant writers discussing memories of the homeland and the sensations of a new country, Kayo’s volume is not a lamentation for what he imagines has been lost, but it’s a new kind of celebration, albeit a vexed one, of the joys of living in a new country,” said professor and judge Kurt Heinzelman. “For me, the particular pleasure of this volume is that the particulars of his experience are so emotionally various and culturally diverse, and that the whole collection is even more beautiful than the sum of its parts.”

Chingonyi, who was born in Zambia and moved to the UK aged six, writes in the poem Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee of how, “In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line / though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin / and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me / just another brother who could rhyme”. In Casting, he writes: “Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick / of playing lean dark men who may have guns. / I have a book of poems in my rucksack, / blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones / that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul.”

In his review for the Guardian, Ben Wilkinson called Kumukanda “an authentic and convincing book of poems in its many nuanced portrayals and unflinching reflections … As Valerie Mason-John once dryly observed: ‘Don’t categorise yourself as a black or ethnic poet. There’s no need to, the media will do that for you.’ Chingonyi goes one better, using his lyric panache to honour pop references and cultural experiences of personal and communal significance while also turning the tables, casting a wry and intelligent eye on our wider attitudes.”

Actor Michael Sheen, who presented the prize to Chingonyi at a ceremony in Swansea on Thursday night, called Kumukanda “a stunning and hugely culturally relevant collection of poems that keenly explore black culture, masculinity and identity in Britain today”.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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