It’s been a full, exciting and varied first year for the Oxford Writers’ House. We’ve been lucky enough to host many established writers, as well as hearing and fostering the work of up-and-coming talent in and around the city. But perhaps the climax of our year came on Saturday 15th of July, when we got to hear from – and, in our own small way, support – Oxford’s next generation of writers.
The Peregrine Prize for Young Writers may be in its inaugural year, but the quality of entries was outstanding, and we have high hopes for the prize’s future. Our setting was the stunning Milner Hall in Rhodes House, generously offered by the University of Oxford. Sadly, the competition’s judge Dr. Jon Day was unable to make it – but he did send his best wishes to the prizewinners, saying that he was “intrigued, fascinated, frightened, moved and inspired by their stories.” As were we. In fact, we were fortunate enough to hear two of these stories read aloud by their writers. The winner of the youngest “Hatchling” category, Josias Saviola Santoso, delighted us all with his witty, rollicking tale of an Indian boy fascinated by steam trains, entitled “Railway Life”. The story’s inspiration came from a documentary about the steam trains of Darjeeling, though Josias also confessed a love of Enid Blyton – a clear influence on his story’s adventurous tone.
Striking a darker note was “Nestling” category winner Lily Skinner’s story “Road to Nowhere”, a bleak, thoughtful meditation on disease and death. And as winner of the oldest “Fledgling” category, 16-year-old Mukahang Limbu was also awarded with the title of Oxford City Young Writer 2017-18 – presented by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Cllr. Christine Simm. There was a sense of shock in the audience as Mukahang read out his winning poem, “Ghazal, To See”: no one seemed quite able to believe that someone so young could have crafted such a sensitive, nuanced piece of work. The ghazal is an ancient Arabic form of poetry – Mukahang discovered the form at a workshop earlier this year, and decided to make it his own. The result was a celebratory poem saturated with images of nature, using these to explore the literal and metaphorical concept of sight. Mukahang also writes plays, and cites Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams and contemporary poet Ocean Vuong as influences; he’s a worthy ambassador for Oxford’s young writing talent, and his performance of “Ghazal, To See” left no one in doubt of that.
It was wonderful to see the writers and their families enjoying each other’s work after the prizegiving, as they wandered through the gallery of winning entries laid out at the back of the hall. We’re looking forward to seeing their literary careers blossom over the coming years – the words “watch this space” are overused as a rule, but in this case they couldn’t be more appropriate.