Ashleigh Young has won a prestigious Windham-Campbell Literature Prize worth USD$165,000 for her book of essays Can You Tolerate This? published by Victoria University Press (VUP) in 2016.
The annual prize is administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and is awarded to writers around the globe to support their writing. Ms Young is one of eight prizewinners this year, and the first New Zealand writer to be awarded the prize since it was established in 2013.
Ms Young, who is a creative writing workshop coordinator at Victoria and an editor for VUP, says when she was first contacted about the prize she thought it was a hoax.
“A few moments after receiving a dubious-looking email, I was speaking to a man named Michael Kelleher, in Yale, Connecticut. He said: ‘So, listen, we’ve all been reading your book.’ It is an incredible thing to hear those words spoken in an American accent. And he said there was this prize called the Windham-Campbell Prize, and the prize was $165,000. And I had won it, for my book of essays.
“By this point I was clutching my head and my knees were giving out. I got off the phone and all my workmates were screaming. There was a lot of screaming that day. I’m actually still screaming right now. Just very quietly.”
The nomination process for the prize is done privately and the phone call from Yale is the first time winners are made aware of their award.
Previous winners of the prize include Helen Garner, Teju Cole, Hilton Als and Tessa Hadley.
Ms Young will receive the prize money in September, when she travels to Windham-Campbell Festival at Yale.
Ms Young says she’s finding it hard to accept that the prize is real.
“I’ve always thought of myself as ‘a small writer’. Someone who could only ever write in the margins, and only ever about her small experiences. But this truly mind-boggling honour means that suddenly, a dreamlike opportunity has opened up in front of me – to bring writing into the heart of my life and to have faith that it’s the right thing. I feel a gratitude that I can’t find words for. The generosity of the prize is completely astounding.”
Can You Tolerate This? is a collection of 21 personal essays with content that ranges from Hamilton’s nineties music scene to a stone-collecting French postman, family histories to Bikram yoga.
Ms Young began the collection during her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing for her Master’s manuscript. She has also published a collection of poems, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012).
Can You Tolerate This? has also been longlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.