The 2020 Fellows have been asking the 2021 Fellows some intriguing questions about their writing process and Youth Prize pieces. With the Prize open for entries for another year, we're delighted to share the next two interviews in the series. Keep an eye on the blog, as we will be publishing more interviews with our 2021 Fellows over the coming weeks and months!
Our next interviewees are 2021 Fellows Faith Falayi and William Walker. Read on to hear more about spoken word poetry, celebrating black hair, the beauty and value of the natural world, and the importance of wetlands...
The Orwell Youth Prize 2022 is now open for entries with a new theme: 'Coming Up For Air: Writing the Climate Crisis'. You can also find more information about this year's theme, resources and how to enter on The Orwell Youth Prize website. All this year's winners and runners-up will be invited to join the Youth Fellows, and we hope these interviews will be an inspiration to future entrants.
The 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, Faith Falayi, about her winning poem ‘New Hair, Who Dis (Dear Mrs Johnson)’ the form of the poem, the power of direct address, and how the piece fits into a wider political discourse:
2020 FELLOWS: I loved how your poem directly addresses ‘Mrs Johnson’, as if you’re in dialogue with her. I feel this adds so much force and vibrancy to your piece. Was the use of direct address how you originally conceived the poem, or did you arrive at this form later in the process?
FAITH: I feel that many young black women and girls will have their own ‘Mrs Johnson’, whether that be at school or at the workplace - ‘Mrs Johnson’ could easily be ‘Mr Johnson’! With this in mind, I knew I wanted to use direct address from the start; it opens up a dialogue that makes the conversation about black hair much more personal, mimicking the conversations I hope we can have increasingly in real life. That’s why it was always important to create a speaker that jumps off the page and actively uses her voice to address an issue that affects so many.
2020 FELLOWS: As I was reading your poem, I could almost imagine (and even hear) it being performed! Was this how you intended the poem to read - equal parts written and spoken word?
FAITH: Although the poem is in the form of a letter, I always intended for it to be a spoken word piece. I am greatly inspired by the work of George The Poet who uses spoken word a lot in his work so when he performs, it feels like he is speaking directly to you! I wanted the reader (or listener) to be able to imagine the poem as a real conversation, to feel with all the energy, vibrancy and rhythm that really brings talking about black hair to life. The force of spoken word allows the reader to feel a part of the story, to be active, and hopefully, to be inspired to take part in making a change in the way black hair is received in society.
2020 FELLOWS: Your compelling commentary on black hair reminded me of the novel, Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which highlights the everyday struggles of black women who are forced to make cruel choices - for example, between wearing their natural hair or getting a job. How far do you believe that this growing discourse around black hair in mainstream literature and culture has translated into shifting attitudes on the ground?
FAITH: Black women will often face the challenges of being both black and female which means they will undergo forms of discrimination that others won’t. Subsequently, we often find the female black narrative being overlooked in mainstream literature and culture. However, this unique experience of being both female and black means that black women have benefited both from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. Black women now seem to be taking charge of the way their stories are told and I am reminded of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston draws attention to and celebrates the black female existence and I believe the growing exposure of black women in more areas of society (in the media, literature, politics) will continue and amplify this celebration as we find more ways to make our voices heard.
The 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows also interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, William Walker, about his winning essay ‘A New Direction: Starting Small by Creating Norfolk Wetlands’, discussing his language and stylistic choices, how he decided on the focus of his piece, and how writing can help people to care about the climate crisis:
2020 FELLOWS: In your exploration of the vital need to protect the local environment, you use a combination of persuasive, analytical language alongside stylistic and descriptive prose. Why did you choose to use this combination and how do you think the language of a piece of journalism can influence its reader and content?
WILLIAM: I felt if I had a picture of the wetlands, it would capture attention. I wanted to put the faces of what we are going to lose on the message to encourage action now. I like nature writing and I had written the opening, previously as a record of a visit to RSPB Titchwell. I used it to start the piece because I wanted to create a nature documentary picture, but with words. I hoped that my description would work in the way that a picture of an orangutan effectively delivers the message to save the rainforest.
2020 FELLOWS: Your essay focuses on an aspect of climate change which, as you say, has been ‘generally ignored’. How did you decide on this focus for your piece?
WILLIAM: I knew wetlands are being lost three times faster than forests and yet they have a vital role to play in mitigating climate change. I chose to do a personal research project on the impact of climate change on Norfolk’s wetland birds. Norfolk has been a vital stopping off point for millions of migratory birds for millennia, so the habitat is globally significant. For me, reading the State of Birds report was a wakeup call of what we are losing. Many of these wetland birds’ populations are already in catastrophic decline and research suggests the habitat is likely to be further affected by climate change. I have visited Lakenheath Fen, a wetland restored from a carrot farm, where biodiversity is now thriving with cranes, otters and water voles and it inspires hope that if we act now, we can make a difference.
2020 FELLOWS: One of many lines which stood out to me in your piece was ‘If you too had seen the magic of flocks of swans like white flares on a winter’s dusk…then you would understand how important these habitats are’. What role do you think writing, like yours, can play in helping to make people care more about the effects of climate change on environments which they might not have personally experienced?
WILLIAM: Attenborough once said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about,” and so I hope to raise awareness of the importance of wetlands, the ways we can help restore wetlands and hopefully make more people care about our wetland species in catastrophic decline. I wish every school would teach about wetlands and the biodiversity around us in the UK, because unless we know about our wildlife, and are aware of their decline, we won’t care, if species are lost. I stood on a winter’s dusk at Welney and it was like a scene from Harry Potter, the sky was alive with the honking approach of low flying squadrons of swans, vinyl white against the darkness returning to roost at night, skimming over my head to land. Seeing the swans made me appreciate more what we might lose.
The Orwell Youth Prize 2021, 'A New Direction: Starting Small', was sponsored by Rethinking Poverty: The Webb Trust.
The Orwell Youth Fellows is a project in progress, encompassing winners and runners up from the 2020 and 2021 Youth Prizes. Together, the group are forming ideas, starting conversations and developing writing that is responsive to the society we are living in and that supports engagement with the prize. Find out more here.