Once described as the ‘Booker of the North’, the Portico Prize for Literature is back for 2019/2020 to shine its light on those authors embodying the spirit of the North with their writing. Usually held biennially, the Prize could not go ahead in 2017 due to a lead sponsor pulling their support, something which sent shockwaves through the Northern literary world. Thankfully, this year a new partnership was formed with Manchester Metropolitan University, allowing the Portico Prize to continue proving the North’s literary merit to the rest of the world, with previous winners including heavy hitters such as Val McDermid, Anthony Burgess and Hilary Mantel.
The North East is well-represented in the 2019 shortlist, with Sunderland-born Jessica Andrews and County Durham native Glen James Brown, with the other shortlistees hailing from Yorkshire and Lancashire. Themes and genres vary across the six books, as the only criteria for the prize is that it be a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which ‘evokes the spirit of the North’.
Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis is a multigenerational saga which unfolds on the streets of a housing development in the North East, uncovering three generations of secrets while the estate reveals its own history throughout the novel.
Meanwhile, Saltwater by Jessica Andrews focuses more on the meaning of home; its protagonist Lucy, born in working-class Sunderland, feels sure that her life will be changed when she wins a place at university in London, which seems a world away from the North East. But when she gets there, she still feels like an outsider, and graduation sees her flee to her grandfather’s cottage in the Irish countryside in another attempt to piece together
Jessica is honest about how much of her own life is reflected in her work of fiction. ‘When I was younger, I felt like I didn’t want to live in the North East, but what I’ve found is that when you move away, you have this sense of unbelonging, and I guess that’s what both Lucy and I have been figuring out,’ explains Jessica, who has lived in Santa Cruz, Paris, Donegal, Barcelona and London. ‘I’ve moved around a lot and it’s like searching for a home, but what I explore through the book is that home is inside of you, and you take your roots with you.’
Growing up in Sunderland, Jessica felt that there weren’t enough options for young people planning their future. ‘I went to school 10 years ago so maybe it’s changed now, but when I was growing up there wasn’t much emphasis on creativity at all,’ she says. ‘Either you did something practical like working at Nissan or doing an apprenticeship, or you could apply to university. But even then I felt like I didn’t have much help when it came to choosing a university or a course – I just sort of guessed.’
Although her school didn’t provide much opportunity for creative pursuits, Jessica was able to find inspiration elsewhere, in the form of a drama club she attended. ‘The woman who ran our group, Sarah, opened our minds up to a lot of things we otherwise wouldn’t have known about – a different way to live.’
Clubs and workshops such as these are crucial as they show today’s young people that the possibilities are endless – something Jessica herself knows. ‘I did some workshops in Sunderland back in October, and framed them around who gets to make art and why,’ she explains. ‘It was interesting because a lot of the kids didn’t have a sense of what their cultural identity was, and that made me think: is that because we don’t see a lot of the North East in the media?
‘I think it’s about empowering young people and helping them realise that their lives are just as important,’ she continues. ‘I wrote my book from a place of anger in some ways. When I moved away from the North East, I felt like people didn’t regard my life as important. While writing Saltwater, I had this fear all the time that the things I was writing were trivial and uninteresting and that no one would want to read it. So it came from anger, but what if it came from empowerment instead?
‘I feel very excited and emotional about being nominated because, yes, it’s my life, but it’s not just about me – it’s about what it means to be a teenage girl growing up in the North East,’ says Jessica. ‘I wish I could show this to my teenage self. She didn’t think that she was worth very much, that her life was very interesting, or that it had much poetry in it, and I want to say: but look! You do have the power to do things and it is important and interesting.’
Clearly Jessica’s fears over penning an uninteresting novel haven’t been realised, as the glowing reviews continue to pour in, praising an experimental style which captures Lucy’s thoughts and emotions. And while it’s true that much of the UK’s literature still seems to be coming out of, and focused around, the South, it is awards such as the Portico Prize which are helping put our authors firmly on the map – where they belong.
Jessica Andrews was announced as the winner of the Portico Prize on the 23rd January. Visit www.theportico.org.uk for more information on the prize.