Bryan Washington, a 27-year-old writer from Houston, has won the £30,000 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas prize for his “kickass” debut short story collection, Lot.
The collection is a portrait of the author’s home town, one of the most diverse cities in the US. Half of the stories follow a young gay man, with a black mother and a Latino father, who wrestles with his own sexuality and the challenging attitudes of those around him. The rest roam among the city’s male sex workers, drug dealers and its lowest paid, charting the violence and uncertainty of lives in neighbourhoods caught between neglect and gentrification.
“I wanted to write stories set in Houston, featuring queer folks of colour, that my friends would enjoy,” Washington said after learning he had won. “Insofar as the book has an intended motif, it’s giving your neighbours the benefit of the doubt. Now, as ever (because many of us have been living in ‘strange times’ for some time), there are infrastructural and cultural provocations not to do that. But we can’t give in to them.”
For the chair of judges, Dai Smith, Lot “does what all great fiction does – finds a style that can open up a world that is otherwise unknowable and he does it with wit and grace”.
“It is a real voice, unique, unforgettable, generous and warm, and one that provides us with a sense of community and the full experience of life,” said Smith. “As one of the judges said, he has a kickass voice.”
The £30,000 award goes to a writer aged 39 or under, in honour of the Welsh poet Thomas, who died when he was 39. It is the world’s largest literary prize for young writers, and has been won in the past by writers including Max Porter and Guy Gunaratne. Washington said it was “a gift whenever an audience gives you the time of day for a story, whatever that is, let alone to be acknowledged for your work on such a massive platform”.
“It’s an honour to tell stories about the communities that are dear to me, and the communities that I live among – marginalised communities, communities of colour, and queer communities of colour, specifically,” he added. “So I’m thankful for the chance to share space with my fellow nominees, and I’m grateful for the support of my friends, and my fam, and my chosen fam.”
This year’s shortlist included novels by Téa Obreht and Ocean Vuong, as well as poetry by Jay Bernard, Mary Jean Chan and Stephen Sexton. Washington’s win was announced online in a pre-recorded ceremony hosted by actor Michael Sheen, an honorary fellow of Swansea University, and it featured readings from the shortlisted authors.
While in lockdown, Washington said he has been tying up loose ends on his first novel, Memorial, the story of two young men in Houston who find themselves no longer sure of their relationship, which he has described as a “gay slacker dramedy”.
Mostly, though, he said: “I’m hanging out with my puppy.”