Derek Owusu wins 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize with “groundbreaking” debut That Reminds Me

3 Jul 2020 -

Taylor Beidler wins the inaugural UEA New Forms Award and Michelle Perkins receives the first Laura Kinsella Fellowship

The National Centre for Writing (NCW) has today (2nd July) announced Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me as the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2020. The novel-in-verse, praised by judges as a ‘transcendent work of literature’, is chosen as the best debut novel across the UK and Ireland this year from a strong shortlist including The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu.

In addition to the £10,000 prize money, Owusu will receive a tailored year-round platform of support and mentorship from the NCW, which is running the Desmond Elliott Prize for the first time this year as part of its new Early Career Awards portfolio.

That Reminds Me is a vivid and semi-autobiographical tale of a British-Ghanaian boy called K, whose turbulent childhood spent passing through foster homes leaves him battling with a budding neurosis. At 11-years-old, K is moved from his white foster family in a village in Suffolk and is taken back to the very different context of inner-city London after his foster mother develops cancer. Each section, told in fragments of memory, explores K’s flickering experiences of abuse, sexual awakening, depression, alcoholism, self-harm and addiction.

It was chosen as the best debut of the year by a judging panel chaired by author and previous Desmond Elliott Prize winner, Preti Taneja, who was joined by Chief Lead Writer at The Observer, Sonia Sodha, and writer and editor Sinéad Gleeson. Preti Taneja said: “That Reminds Me is written with a rare style that wrings pure beauty from every painful, absurd moment K must face. Despite the terrors around him, this young black man has an instinctive love for the world that burns at the core of the book. The judges and I were as shattered by the truths of the story as we were moved by the talent of its writer. Derek Owusu has given us a unique, profound and transcendent work of literature: we want as many readers as possible to discover it – once they do they will return to again and again.”

Owusu is a writer, poet and podcaster from north London who, before turning his hand to fiction, collated, edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (2019), an anthology of writing by 20 Black British men. He was a co-host of the literature podcast Mostly Lit up until 2017.

That Reminds Me is published by Stormzy’s #Merky imprint. It is the first title in a two-book deal for Owusu, and the first book published by the imprint to have won any major literary prize. The TV and film rights to Owusu’s second book with #Merky, Teaching My Brother to Read, have already been sold to Idris Elba’s production company, Green Door Pictures.

The new Early Career Awards portfolio also includes the University of East Anglia (UEA) New Forms Award for an innovative and daring new voice in fiction and the Laura Kinsella Fellowship which recognises an exceptional writer who has experienced limiting circumstances or is currently underrepresented in literary fiction.

The UEA New Forms Awards was judged by writer and poet Inua Ellams, with Professor Henry Sutton and Dr. Claire Hynes of UEA and NCW Programme Director Peggy Hughes. It is awarded to Taylor Beidler, whose project explores non-traditional storytelling and aims to synthesise her work as a playwright, performance artist and creative non-fiction writer.

Of Beidler’s entry, Peggy Hughes said: “This is an impressive project with exciting potential, using a personal story to powerful, measured effect.”

The Laura Kinsella Fellowship was judged by doctor and author Roopa Farooki and novelist and playwright Alice Jolly with Chief Executive of the NCW, Chris Gribble. It is awarded to Michelle Perkins. Perkins originally trained as a nurse and was the first person in her family to go to university when she studied at Goldsmiths in the 90s. After experiencing some major life challenges, she rediscovered writing as a means to make sense of her difficult family history.

Of Perkins’ work, Roopa Farooki said: “There is a poetic pragmatism that is the writer’s own, and I feel there is great potential for this writer to be a bold and brilliant voice.”

Beidler and Perkins will both receive £4,000 to support them at the beginnings of their careers as well as a bespoke programme of support provided by the NCW, supported by Arts Council England. All three winners have also been invited to choose a selection of ten books which NCW will gift to a library or school of their choice.

Running in parallel to the Early Career Awards is an online digital programme providing free resources for anyone, anywhere wanting to progress with their writing. Every two months NCW releases a bespoke support package with advice from established and new voices. Supported by the Arts Council England, this element of the Early Career Awards aims to widen the impact of literary prize culture.