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The Barbellion Prize 2020: Illuminating Writers with Chronic Illnesses/Disabilities

As society becomes evermore progressive and diverse, the publishing and literary industry has recognised the need to mirror and reflect this, particularly in the form of raising up and celebrating voices of those typically under-represented in the limelight. The Barbellion Prize is a new award dedicated to praising authors whose works express the experiences of living with disability and chronic illness.

The prize is named in honour of W.N.P Barbellion (1889-1919), an English diarist known best for ‘The Journal of a Disappointed Man’ and ‘A Last Diary’, which detail his life and observations on society as a man living with multiple sclerosis. His work has been praised by Ronald Blythe as "among the most moving diaries ever created" due to his deeply moving exploration of the power of writing as a means of self-expression when faced with illness and disability.

In this way, the Barbellion Prize hopes to find and lift up contemporary writers who follow in Barbellion’s footsteps in writing passionately about their realities with disability, by accepting works of fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, or critical non-fiction from all around the world. Due to the physically consuming and exhaustive nature of chronic illness or disability, many do not have the luxury of being able to comfortably write about their lives, therefore it is incredibly important to highlight these lesser heard voices, especially since the history of disability literature is unfortunately very limited.

“While rewarding people for writing while ill or disabled, we also hope to encourage others who live with long-term illness and disability to further demonstrate those realities in print - fictionally or otherwise."

As founder and director of the Barbellion Prize, Jake Goldsmith, alongside his team, looks to innovatively and positively change the evolving book prize landscape. The prize was established with the view to expand understanding and consideration of such illnesses both within publishing and more widely across literary consumption. With exemplary literature including both explicit and implicit discussions of disability/illness, in an interview with J.R. Jackson at The Handy, Uncapped, Pen, Jake Goldsmith cited Albert Camus and Manès Sperber as his personal inspirations. Jake paves the way for the prize’s applicants with his most recent publication Neither Weak Nor Obtuse: A Memoir.

As director, Jake highlights this as a criminally underrepresented area within published literature and puts forth the aim to amplify the voices of ill/disabled authors, thus inciting changes and bettering representation in publishing. Asserting itself as a “prize which celebrates and recognises alternative ways of living and finding meaning” whilst chronically ill and/or disabled, the Barbellion Prize embodies this throughout its team. With both founder and judges having either long-term illnesses or disabilities, this demonstrates a dedication to more extensive industry-wide representation. Whilst these submissions shall offer a demonstrable artistic prowess, Jake’s vision is ultimately to celebrate the power of authorship in navigating a nuanced discussion of chronic illness.

We spoke to Cat Mitchell, one of the judges.

What were your personal motivations for joining the team?

I was really excited to be asked to be a judge for the Barbellion Prize as writing on illness and disability has had a huge impact on how I view and deal with my own long-term health conditions. When you’re struggling with any kind of health issue, seeing yourself reflected in writing can be incredibly powerful - it can help you to process your grief, and can make you feel less alone.

Writing on these topics is also important for producing empathy in wider society. Often illness and disability can be very isolating [...] Celebrating and uplifting writing about these experiences therefore can reveal the daily realities of people who are otherwise often dismissed, ignored, or just unseen, and can help people to understand their concerns and the barriers in society that they face.

It’s brilliant to see the publishing world confronting its lack of diversity and promising to take action, but disability and illness have never been a key focus in these discussions [...] This has always seemed odd to me, as anyone has the potential to become ill or disabled, but people often don’t consider the barriers that people with health issues have to overcome until they, or a close friend or family member, have to deal with them.

So overall, the importance of the prize for me is celebrating and encouraging disabled and ill writing, and making it more visible to a wider audience so we can increase diversity, inclusivity, and empathy in the publishing world and beyond.

What kinds of work are you hoping to see submitted?

I’m really hoping we get a wide variety of ill and disabled experiences being represented in the work that’s submitted. I hope we end up with work that reflects this breadth [of illness and disability]. I also hope we get a wide variety of voices as experiences of ill-health can be hugely impacted by things such as class, race, religion, gender, sexuality and so on.

Do you have personal favourite works written by ill/disabled writers?

I have so many favourites! My most recent favourite is probably Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson. It’s a collection of personal essays on Sinéad’s own experiences of her body, of motherhood, and of grief [...] The writing is beautiful, and it’s just a dazzling work of art in itself.

It is endlessly inspiring to see the growing change in the world of literature. From giants such as the Women’s Prize for Fiction to newcomers such as the Barbellion Prize, voices once silenced and diminished are finally being heard, and importantly, rewarded for their writing and achievements. Hopefully, the introduction of these prizes will raise awareness and broaden the wider reader’s mind, leading to a more diverse literary industry: one which is colourful, accepting, and representative of stories from all walks of life.

The first Barbellion prize (of £600) is to be awarded on February 12th 2021. For those interested, submissions are still open and end October 31st 2020.



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