This year we had nearly 200 entries, from every kind of school across the UK. The extract we chose seemed to speak strongly to students and we saw a real engagement with the subject matter of Yaa Gyasi’s brilliant novel. As co-editors of emagazine, Lucy Webster and I read all the entries, before sending a short list to Jenny Stevens, an A Level teacher herself. She chose a winner and two runners up and highly commended one student. The rest of the shortlist is commended for their work. When she told us her choices, we were delighted. They would have been ours too!
Her report will comment on the shortlist and the reasons behind her choice of winner. However, as usual, I would like to say something about the entries as a whole. When reading such a large number of pieces of writing some patterns emerge – aspects of writing about texts that one can identify as particularly successful. We very much appreciated those entries that were written in a simple and direct style, not over-written or exaggeratedly ‘academic’ in uses of language and style. The way literary terms were used (or not used) often distinguished those we considered carefully for the shortlist from others. We read a lot of entries that talked about ‘anaphoric tricolons’, ‘personification’ or ‘sibilance’ but it was rare for these to be discussed in convincing ways. Sibilance featured a huge amount, yet how justifiable is it to claim that an ‘s’ sound is harsh or sinister, comforting, solemn, gentle or satisfying? All of these were offered as possible effects. Students who looked at the bigger sweep of the extract – for instance, its use of time and how that relates to memory, the way the passage moves between the past and present, the importance of story and storytelling, or the wonderful imagery of stone and rock, used to convey Esi’s strength – offered insightful readings of the piece. Some students gave glimpses of the kind of fresh, original thinking they were capable of in part of their entry, then lapsed back into more formulaic writing, of the kind that perhaps they thought was expected of them. If only they’d trusted their instincts more!
Finally, I just want to mention a couple of pieces that couldn’t make it onto the shortlist because they didn’t do what we’d asked them to do. The two students from the same school, Chinaza Iwe and Mariah-Rosaire Nimo, wrote much more personally about the extract, one in the form of a poem and the other in a more personal, emotional response to the piece. Though we couldn’t shortlist them, we did want to recognise the power of their responses, and the way they’d related the extract to their own lives and concerns, so we are giving them a special mention.
Read the extract from Homecoming here.
The winner is Alistair Mclelland from Wyke College, Hull.
The runners-up are Bahira Malak and Georgia Jackson Jessel. Click the pink links below to read their entries.
Dr Jenny Stevens reports on the emagazine Close Reading Competition 2021.
Judging this year’s emagazine Close Reading Competition has been a thoroughly heartening experience thanks to the assured and perceptive responses that entrants managed to craft in just 500 words. Encountering Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for the first time, my initial reading of the set extract was free from any preconceptions formed from a whole-text reading, helping my evaluative focus to stay firmly on the skills of close analysis.
From the carefully selected passage, we can establish that the Homegoing is an intergenerational exploration of the lingering impact of the transatlantic slave trade, a period that many sixth-formers will have studied in various areas of the curriculum and perhaps considered in relation to an A Level English text. One distinguishing factor for me as I read through the shortlisted entries was how effectively writers had employed this contextual knowledge so as to balance what literary theorists sometimes label ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ readings. As Professor Bob Eaglestone explains in Doing English, an intrinsic interpretation is concerned with ‘the form of the text, its structure and language’, whereas an extrinsic interpretation moves ‘out from the text to the context’. For the most part, the finalists brought what they already knew about slavery to bear meaningfully on their analysis, often focusing on issues such as the formation of selfhood, cultural identity and the ‘dehumanisation’ of the enslaved. The winning piece, though, shone out in the way it dealt with these ‘big picture’ ideas through keen attention to structure and language. Especially praiseworthy was its succinct discussion of the temporal narrative shifts in the passage and its sophisticated grasp of Gyasi’s treatment of the relationship between language and power.
While a successful competition response inevitably requires strong reading skills, it also requires strong writing skills. All of the interpretations I read were lucidly and accurately expressed (give or take a few minor slips). What put some writers ahead of others, however, was their ability to condense an idea or comment on stylistic technique into a telling phrase of their own, without relying on an armoury of literary terms. The winning entrant’s observation that the third-person narrative was ‘repeatedly slipping away from the present and into [Ness’] memory’ was a notable case in point.
The engaging and fluent critical prose I had the pleasure to read as this year’s judge certainly convinced me that I should put Homegoing at the top of my reading list. Congratulations to all the shortlisted entrants and thank you for providing me with some thoughtful ways into reading Gyasi’s debut novel.