Raven Leilani wins Dylan Thomas prize for ‘fearless’ novel Luster

·2 min read

The American novelist Raven Leilani has won the £20,000 Swansea University Dylan Thomas prize, with her “fearless” debut Luster, about a young black woman who begins dating a white man in an open marriage.

The award is given to a work by an author aged 39 or under, in honour of the Welsh poet Thomas, who died when he was 39. Leilani, 30, has won for her first novel, which follows Edie, who is working a depressing job in publishing when she begins seeing Eric, 23 years her senior. She is subsequently drawn into the lives of Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and their adopted black daughter Akila.

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Leilani’s debut “stood out for the compelling narrative voice, and the unblinking quality of the writing,” said chair of judges Namita Gokhale, who, with her fellow judges, selected Luster from a shortlist which also featured Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, and Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji.

“It was a difficult decision as we had an exceptionally brilliant shortlist – all the books were potential winners. After many conversations and long deliberations, the jury unanimously decided on Luster,” said Gokhale.

She described Luster – which was chosen by Barack Obama as one of his favourite books of last year – as “an accomplished and fearless novel that carries the ache, uncertainty and vulnerability as well as the harsh reality of being a young black woman in America. The narrator Edie’s incisive eye for all registers of racist bias is unblinking and masterly. This is an important, uncomfortable book, by turns funny and angry, and always compelling. Leilani is an astonishingly original new voice,” said Gokhale.

Leilani, who was also longlisted for this year’s Women’s prize, was announced as winner in a virtual ceremony on Thursday night. Previous Dylan Thomas prize winners include Bryan Washington, Guy Gunaratne and Max Porter.

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