The Gay and Lesbian Editor of Time Out and host of Polari Literary Salon, Paul Burston, was his usual flamboyant self, when he announced James Maker’s memoir Autofellatio, as the winner of the Salon’s inaugural First Book Prize, at The Southbank Centre on the evening of 21st November.
Alongside the prize, the evening served as a perfect opportunity for the salon’s loyal fans to celebrate Polari’s Fourth Birthday, whilst listening to some fabulous readings by the diverse yet individually captivating talents of Shaun Levin, Paula Varjack and SJ Watson, to name but a few.
Paul Burston created Polari four years ago, partly in response to the shortage of opportunities for LGBT authors to promote their work, and partly to encourage new literary talent within the LGBT community. In keeping with this dedication to the promotion of fresh queer voices, the Polari First Book Prize was formulated.
The prize was for a first book, which best explored the queer experience and included poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction. Unlike many of its counterpart’s, it also embraced self-published work. Burston said, “The Polari Prize was always going to be about encouraging new talent. It's been part of the Polari ethos since I started the salon four years ago”.
Another prominent LGBT literary prize in the U.K, The Green Carnation Prize, is to be announced on 7th December, meaning the two prizes will be judged just weeks apart. The judges of The Green Carnation prize have come under a degree of controversy this year, for certain perceived omissions within their shortlist. Regarding Polari’s shortlist, Paul Burston stated, “As far as I'm aware, there's been no controversy about this year's shortlist! I've certainly had no complaints. The response from the press and public has been very supportive. I think it helps that the prize is very specific. People know what it’s about.”
The winning book, James Maker’s Autofellatio, begins with his teenage years in Punk-era London, moving through the counter-cultural 1980s with an account of the Indie group Raymonde and his association with Pop artist, Morrissey. Maker said, “I gave it that title because, in my opinion, all autobiography is a form of, if not the act of, Autofellatio. I wanted to write a memoir of candor and transparency, which is the very least a memoirist owes to the reader.”
Burston, the chair of the judges, said: “The judges felt that Autofellatio stood out with its humor, honesty and heartfelt exploration of British queer life over the last 30 years. The hard-won wisdom and tenacity of this story is also reflected in the way in which the book evolved. Self-published as an e-book, it has now been picked up by an independent publisher.” What stood out to me personally, both in Maker’s winning speech and on talking to him afterwards, was his flat-out determination to be heard, both in life and art.
Two authors who were also shortlisted for the First Book Prize were Jonathan Kemp, for his novel London Triptych, and Timothy Graves, for Homo Jihad. Both authors have strong associations with Birkbeck; Jonathan Kemp teaches on the Creative Writing BA and Timothy Graves is currently a student in his second year of a part-time Creative Writing MA. Homo Jihad was Timothy Graves’ personal response to the 7/7 London bombings. It focuses on a gay love affair set across cultural boundaries, at the time of the terrorist atrocities. Jonathan Kemp’s London Triptych, weaves together the lives of three gay men in three different eras: Oscar Wilde's decadent 1890s, the repressed 1950s and the liberated hedonism of the 1990s. Of the novel, Kemp said, “I wrote “London Triptych” as a love letter to this city in the form of a book of shadows which described lives unseen and loves unspoken, in words that could sniff out the heart and reveal with brutality and tenderness what lies within.' Given the caliber of the shortlisted authors, it must have been tough choice for the judges. Maker himself acknowledged the strength of the competition, “the other books in the shortlist are so very, very strong.”
There is no doubt the publishing industry is going through major shifts at present; with James Maker’s memoir beginning life as a self-published e-book, he hopes his win will send a message to all first time authors, “Self publishing is no longer seen as vanity publishing; I think it can be self-empowerment for first time authors. It’s a great tool. There is now a history of authors that have self-published their books and those books have later become optioned by other publishers. It could be the way forward for many people.” It is certainly something to consider.