Levelling the playing field: supporting competitions for diverse writers

Tuesday, October 16, 2018 - 15:47

Southbank Centre Literature Programmer Bea Colley explores how an increase in the number of literary prizes helps to bring more diverse voices into literature.

This year, perhaps more than ever before, there seems to have been an explosion in literary prizes which aim to celebrate diverse voices. Two of such prizes are the Creative Futures Literary Awards and the SI Leeds Literary Prize which Southbank Centre hosted at this year’s London Literature Festival.

The Creative Futures Literary Awards was this year presented by Lemn Sissay and author Kerry Hudson. The prizes showcase talented writers who lack opportunities due to mental health issues, ethnicity, disability, and other social circumstance and prizes are awarded for both poetry and short fiction. Sissay says of the awards and others like it:

“Competitions have myriad benefits: they highlight talent; provide a deadline; a focus; and with longlistings, shortlistings and wins, they provide a priceless boost to a writer’s confidence. The Creative Future Literary Awards is the only national competition aimed at highlighting the excellent work of writers from all areas of under-representation.”

Competitions highlight talent, provide a deadline; a focus... and they provide a priceless boost to a writer’s confidence
Lemn Sissay, poet and presenter of The Creative Futures Literary Awards

The SI Leeds Literary Prize is an award for unpublished fiction by UK-based black and Asian women which aims to act as a loudspeaker for fresh and original literary voices and to help them reach new audiences. This year, we are proud to be working in partnership with the prize in an event called Revolution, Past and Future Legacies: SI Leeds Prize For Women of Colour.

One other new and noteworthy prize is Spread the Word’s London Writers Awards which has been created with the aim of increasing the number of writers from under-represented communities being taken up by agents and publishers. Crucially, the awards are free to participate in; bursaries are available for writers in need and there is an Access Fund for disabled writers. The Awards are focused on supporting London-based writers of colour and working class, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers.  

The Jhalak Prize, which seeks out the best books by British/British resident BAME writers is unique in its entry criteria and is also open to self-published writers, saw the astute Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (pictured, top) as its 2017 Winner. Writers Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla began the prize alongside Media Diversified but the going hasn’t always been easy. In 2017, a Conservative MP, Philip Davies made a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the Jhalak Prize discriminated against white writers. Reassuringly, the Commission wrote back to say "this award is the type of action which the Commission supports and recommends".

2017.10.29_YALW_Sunday_Change is Gonna Come_Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla, writer, and one of the founders of the Jhalak Prize


It seems there are still huge barriers for writers from diverse backgrounds in terms of finding an agent, getting published, being nominated for prizes and getting the recognition that their work deserves. With larger prizes not always accessible to independent publishers and a recent research project by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) revealing they found that only 1% of British children’s books feature a main character who is black or minority ethnic, it seems that there is still a long way to go before the world of literature feels truly representative. But with incredible prizes such as Creative Futures, SI Leeds, and many more not mentioned here, we can feel heartened that there is a conscientious and dedicated community working to ensure that the future looks bright for writers from diverse backgrounds, and indeed we must do all that we can to support them.


Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK, and the venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.

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