A global literary celebration
The 10th anniversary of the Manchester Writing Competition proved to be another huge success. Here we reflect on another successful year and publish the winning poetry and fiction
“The Manchester Writing Competition is a shining example of the ethos of the Manchester Writing School, and reflects the work that we do each day in our teaching, at our events, and in the work we do in schools and communities: encouraging and celebrating new writing, supporting and developing writers in their literary careers, and taking writers and their work to new audiences, here in Manchester and across the world.”
Those were the words of Professor Dame Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate (2009-2019) and Creative Director of Manchester Writing School, as she opened the gala ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Manchester Writing Competition.
The internationally renowned awards, which offer a £10,000 prize in both fiction and poetry, promote the work of emerging writers and support their practice. Organised by The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, they are the UK’s biggest prize for unpublished writing.
This year’s awards produced another international shortlist, with New York-based Gabriel Monteros winning the Fiction Prize and British poet Molly Underwood taking the Poetry Prize.
Judges hailed Monteros’ “extraordinarily vivid and evocative” 2500-word short story Kolkata, about a woman’s memories of growing up in the Indian city, while Underwood’s winning collection of three poems – Genesis Corinthians/John and Song of Songs – were described as demonstrating “an undeniable musical clarity”.
Monteros said: “Fiction is a necessary conversation between times and cultures, one I hope I can make a small contribution to. So, thank you for this encouragement to keep searching for those bits of time, moments between obligations, to think, write, and try to communicate some essence of our lived humanity.”
Underwood, who graduated with a degree in English from Queens’ College, the University of Cambridge, in 2014, said: “I’m so honoured that my work has appeared alongside such talented fellow finalists, and truly humbled to have been selected by judges whose poetry I admire so much and who have inspired my own work.”
The star-studded gala, which took place in the atmospheric Baronial Hall at Chetham’s Library in the heart of Manchester, celebrated ten years of the Manchester Writing Competition. Over that time it has attracted more than 30,000 submissions from over 50 countries and awarded more than £175,000 to its winners since launching in 2008.
Three previous finalists were in attendance – Mandy Coe, who won the first ever Poetry Prize in 2008, 2017 Poetry Prize winner Romalyn Ante, and Alison Moore, who was shortlisted for the Fiction Prize in 2009 and who’s debut novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
You can read Underwood and Monteros’ winning entries below.
Gabriel Monteros (pictured) is a Latino American who grew up in a working-class, multi-racial neighbourhood in Southern California. He attended Yale University where he studied history and Mandarin Chinese. He spent most of his twenties working in Zhejiang, China, for a local company and has pursued entrepreneurship in West Africa. Through work and travels, he developed deep personal, business, and emotional ties to Asia and Africa, especially China, India, Singapore, Senegal and Cape Verde. In his writing he seeks to draw from his experiences to explore the contradictions and realities of multiculturalism. He is currently based in Brooklyn, New York.
Him asking me to tell him about Kolkata. Lying in a twin bed, his head on my chest some Saturday night. The whole room lit gray, the only color his voice. Why did you want me to tell you about Kolkata if you’re never going to see it? I want to know this part of you. I want to know everything about you.
It’s monsoon season over there. The rain is drumming on cheap roofs, like thousands of pitched snares, a sound so dominating, so present. That is the silence of Kolkata. Only silent when something vast can cover the sound of everything else. Air waves vibrating the tympanic membrane. Signals traveling up the auditory nerves. Sensation muting sensation.
Me sitting on the red plastic stool in my mother’s kitchen. Wearing that blue and white dress I wore every weekend for years. Kicking my feet in the air as I read that old anatomy text book I found in the pile of books my grandpa left us. Finding the pictures fascinating. Humming a tune I don’t remember. Mother cooking next to me. The overwhelming din of sizzling oil and drumming rain finally allowing me to read. Come, Geeti, it’s time to eat.
In Kolkata everything happening at once and nothing happening at all. Tell me more, he’s saying. I don’t understand. I know you don’t understand. Kolkata is chaos, my babe. That chaos birthed me. It’s loud all the time, even in the middle of the night. It’s more than you can handle. Him scoffing at me in the darkness. Me closing my eyes in a city where I need no rain to sleep.
Me carrying around my anatomy book. Reading it between classes, between meals, between naps. Spending hours and hours of every day reading. Tracing pictures of sinews, muscle groups, and organs in my lined notebook. Showing my sister-in-law the pictures of naked bodies. How can Amma let you read this stuff? Her being grossed out by the pictures of the male reproductive system. Me not being grossed out. Proud that I’m ten years younger and not grossed out. It looks just like uncle’s.
Mother yelling at me, calling me a whore. Hitting me across the face. Pain receptors flaring. A thousand names for worthless. A thousand words for vile. Locked in a tiny room alone with all of Kolkata. Chickens bawking as they’re butchered in the streets. Cows groaning. Mangy brown dogs yelping when they’re kicked and smashed. Spit in my hair and tears on my face. Come, Geeti, it’s time to eat. I bought the phuchka just for you.
The red plastic stool in the kitchen, a hot Wednesday evening. Standing up and telling my mother I wanted to be a surgeon. That’s quite a goal for a child. Hoping for her to say more. Waiting for her to say more. A lifetime later finding someone who said more.
Our mutual friends whispering in surprise. She’s too cold for him. She’s too serious. Too rational. Too intimidating.
Him at Claire’s birthday party looking lost, the only one dressed in jeans. Gently touching the shoulder of everyone he’s talking to. Looking in their eyes intently. Listening. Me wondering where he came from, whose friend he was. Claire’s friend from back home. Asking Claire to introduce me.
He’s just a baker. He didn’t graduate college. You aren’t actually interested in him?
Us being introduced. Konika, this is Sal. Talking to him about baking bread. Insisting that he explain each step in detail. The flour, the yeast, the exact temperature for perfect sourdough.
Probing. Probing again. His patience unending. You need to understand everything, Konika, don’t you? Telling him about my work. Telling him about the red plastic stool in my mother’s kitchen in Kolkata. I’m a thrall to his smile. The party fading into irrelevance. Leaving after everyone has long disappeared. Norepinephrine and epinephrine. Glucose pouring out from energy stores. Blood flowing to skeletal muscles. Heart rate increasing. Lateral orbitofrontal cortex shutting down.
Our mutual friends whispering in surprise. She’s too cold for him. She’s too serious. Too rational. Too intimidating.
My sister-in-law buying me small frogs to dissect. Me stealing sharp scissors from school. Opening up the frogs outside. Mother saying they’ll dirty the house. It’s okay, the chickens are opened up outside too. Finding the dead dog, still whole in the alley by the market. Taking the dog home. Opening up the dog. The smell overpowering. Kidneys. Liver. Bladder. Bones too thick to cut through. Mother screaming. Mother crying. I’m crying and covered in spit. Mother making sure I have enough to eat for the evening. Telling me to work hard in school so I can go abroad to study medicine.
Cutting open the brain of one of my first patients. Twelve years old, messy blonde hair and pale blue eyes, cancerous tumor in occipital lobe. Thinking that the boy’s brain looks exactly like the diagrams I’d memorized. Operating on his brain like I do everyone else’s. Removing the part of him that’s distinctly different, the part that’s killing him.
Standing in the hallway holding the boy’s crying mother. Explaining that I didn’t cure him, that we needed to wait and see. The tumor returning. Cancer metastasizing. The look on his mother’s face haunting the hospital lobby. Telling her it was worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Telling her we had to take the chance. Telling her to check if her insurance provided counselling options. Going back to work without pause. Realizing at 3am on a rainless night that I was 12 when I found the anatomy textbook.
Him asking about my work. Calling me a healer. The body heals itself, babe. I can’t be both a healer and a surgeon. My job is to cut and slice objects that resemble the ones in my textbooks. Not to heal. If I had to heal people, I would’ve collapsed long ago. You wouldn’t understand. You’re a baker.
Him always smelling like fresh baked bread. Tall with curly hair. Skin brown like mine, but the wrong type of brown. Mediterranean brown. Me watching him knead dough with delicate force.
Watching him measure each drop of oil, each grain of flour, each degree on the oven. The frustration on his face when he’s thinking deeply. The shape of his mouth when he whispers. Him pushing me hard against the wall as he places his hand behind my head.
I’m your first? You’re almost 30! No, not exactly the first. But the only one that matters. Too busy in medical school, babe. Too focused. Always focused.
Going to college. Studying pre-medicine. Attending an elite university overseas in the land of bland tea, mild food, and rude hosts. My brain becoming fascinated with itself. Finding satisfaction in learning that my invisible thoughts are nothing more than electrical signals traveling down axons and chemical neurotransmitters released into synapses. Residency at a prestigious hospital. Position on the surgical team. Calls home every night. Mother beckoning me home. Geeti, I haven’t seen you in years.
Sunday afternoons in my bed. Him talking about our souls. Gentle, soothing ignorance painted in his eyes. We’re more than our bodies, my love. Really, babe? You should’ve read more science and less philosophy. That’s why you’re a baker. Of course, babe, I’m teasing. Don’t be so sensitive. But, babe, if I hit you hard on the forehead with this book, you would change. Who you are would change because I bashed your brain. Prefrontal cortex damage means a loss of impulse control, a loss of tact, not that you have any anyway. Prove it? I’ll fuck up your soul now. Him grabbing my arms. Us wrestling in the sheets. Laughing. Kissing. Whoring.
Konika, but even the most scientific among us live as if we have some sort of unique essence, as if we have a soul. Humanity insists on it, don’t we? Lumps of fatty tissues and proteins screaming for divinity.
Him overhearing me talking to my mother. Noticing that she called me Geeti instead of Konika.
What does that mean? Honey? Sweetie? It’s my house name, babe. Geeti, because I always sung as a child. I’d sing while getting dressed and sing while studying. I didn’t even notice when I was singing.
Sing for me, Geeti. No, I don’t sing. I’m not going to sing for you. Yes, babe, you can call me Geeti. But only you. Only you.
Sitting around the harmonium singing Tagore’s songs with my family. Uncle sitting there with me. Next to me. We’re all happy he’s come to visit for the month. I’m happy he’s here. We all cry when has to leave. I’m sad that he leaves. I cry as he leaves. I wear my blue and white dress.
My babe asking me to heal him. To make the nights of anxiety melt away. To not freak out every time rent was due. To tell him I’ll always be there. Me holding him, his head warm on my chest. But I’m a surgeon, babe. I don’t heal, I operate. Telling him over and over again that this can only be temporary. You live in fantasy, in passion. You’re always this way. You’re consistent. You’re a rock. But the universe is not consistent.
The first time he came over. Take off your shoes before coming into my apartment. Sit down, you must have tea. Have you had proper chai before? You must eat too. You can’t be in my home without eating something. You say this isn’t India? Fine, eat me then. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
Chilies for sale by the basket. Ripe mangos far better than you get here. Bright orange mishti doi served in small clay bowls. The taste of mishti doi. Texture thick like soft crayon. Buds on the tongue bonding to sugars and fats. Electrical signals. Dopamine. Memories of a childhood in Kolkata. What do you miss most? Phuchka dipped in tamarind juice by dirty hands. The Kolkata dust adds flavor. It’s what makes it nourishing. It’s what makes me. His surprise that I would eat such dirty food from street vendors. Everything about you is clean. You’re sanitary all the time. Of course I am, I’m a surgeon. But I’m only that way here, not there. Tell me, Geeti. When will you take me there?
Mother on the phone asking when I’m going to get married. Mother screaming at me. A thousand ways to fail. A thousand debts to pay. I’m the reason she’s sick. I’m the reason she can no longer get out of bed. I’m the reason she’s going to die soon. My sister-in-law crying on the phone.
Bearing everything I should bear.
Him in confusion. Always confused about home. Your mother’s crazy, Geeti. Just ignore her. No, dear. She’s not. She’s saner than you. I can’t believe you’d tell me to ignore my own mother.
Kolkata covered in decaying graffiti of hammers and sickles. Orange and blue and green sarees. Bicycles with squeaking gears and cars with cracked windshields. Cow shit. Life. The British, they’re still in Kolkata, did you know that, babe? They’re still present in the old colonial buildings and in the way the Brahmins carry themselves.
Fresh-baked bread he brought to me every Sunday. Strawberry jam, butter, and tea. My babe, no one made bread for me here before. Years I’ve gone without fresh bread. The olfactory bulb is located close to the hippocampus. Smell triggers memory more than any other sense. The fresh chapatti my mother bakes for me every day. Chapatti and dal and rice and fish. I’ll take the bones out of your fish for you, babe. You aren’t used to eating fish with your hands.
Phone calls every night. Him telling me not to pick up. Mother insisting I come home. Me insisting she treat my sister-in- law better. Why do you torture her so? Why do you make her wash your feet and change your sheets and clean up your shit as you spit on her? I know you can walk.
Because my daughter left me. Does uncle still come to visit? Her not answering. Never answering.
Norepinephrine and epinephrine. Glucose pouring out from energy stores. Blood flowing to skeletal muscles. Heart rate increasing. Lateral orbitofrontal cortex wide awake.
Grass green pungent around us. Lying in the sun with him. Nourishing our brown. Worshiping our brown. Letting it engulf us. Babe, have you ever thought about the absurdity of what I do? The absurdity of scientists studying the brain? A cluster of neurons working to deny the supernatural significance it’s given itself. It’s a fundamental contradiction, a conflict of interest. Bad science. Yet we proceed. We probe and experiment and research on without hesitation. Don’t kiss me when you can’t follow the conversation.
My parents telling me about a family friend who has a son that studied in the UK. Bengali boy. Brahmin. Lawyer. Handsome. Living in Kolkata now. He’s heard about me too.
And I will miss you. Don’t be afraid of paradoxes, my love. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer.
How polite my babe is being to that demented old lady in the bakery. Brain full of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Long term confused with short term. She insisting that he’s her daughter’s husband and chiding him for not taking good care of her. Him apologizing and promising to be a better husband. I know he would’ve been a better husband. He is honest that way.
Me finally crying about my uncle to you. You making me weak. Making me soft.
Telling him I’m returning to help take care of my mother. Anger curled on his face. The pretty black curls in his hair. You don’t owe her anything. She never defended you. She treats your sister-inlaw like shit. Just put her in a home. Put her in a home? You won’t ever understand, will you? I need to return to Kolkata. That’s the right thing to do. The moral thing to do. But you’re a modern woman.
Yes, I am. I am a modern woman.
A grown man crying. Don’t cry. That’s not fair. His eyes looking like my grandfather’s. Tired and aged. The burden of decades of things left unsaid. One day, scientists will describe the physiological process behind those eyes. Maybe it will be me.
Claire asking me what the fuck was I thinking. He’s sensitive. You knew that. Me having no answer. Babe, my brain is a tangible mass of intangibles. It’s time for me to go home. And I will tell my parents that I’m excited to meet their friend’s son. And I will be excited. And I will miss you. Don’t be afraid of paradoxes, my love. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer.
Tuesday afternoon. Dark clouds, the sky smothered. Me running late to meet him at the movies. My makeup smudged, my hair frizzed. A bit of flour on his cheek he hadn’t noticed. Not watching the show, but watching him. We both forget our umbrellas. The rain silk on my shoulders. His hands strong on my back. Quiet as the monsoons.
Molly Underwood (pictured) graduated with a degree in English from Queens’, Cambridge in 2014, and has spent most of her time travelling and working abroad since then, in Spain, Ireland and Vietnam. Last year she returned to the UK to complete a masters degree in Social and Cultural Theory. She is currently living and writing in London.
I woke upon the wastes of time: ‘let us settle, tooth for bitten tongue’
Was forward ground. Surrender was a sandfill site,
Eye for an I was wrong—
All for a war-waged peacetime toll, and the sound was high and wrong.
Better to find the old loved wound, and bleed it clean,
And charge when it has gone.
So: backward through unsettled dust, on the rack of an opened lung,
To the mortgaged birth of an epitaph. The best mistake
Is an expensive one,
Recalled when greener wartime scores have dried in the fixing sun
To covenants; remaindered when it costs too much
To keep beneath your tongue.
Backward, to a closing deal on the heels of a nonsense sum
And damned advance. Since sand in every clotted wound
Will worry it undone, I wasted time. I suffixed duty to some infant sin and wished it gone,
And, having sunk, I could not meet its open eye
With mine, and could not mourn.
We keep between our teeth the charge that should have been returned
For fear that we might overshoot the guard and mark
The heart of the upright wrong:
The leeward spit of a prologue pip, and a shame that would not come.
Our oldest ghosts are underfed.
We learned to bite our tongues.
SONG OF SONGS
Stay me with wine, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
Name me in your bed or stray, for there are finer names than mine
And plainer ways to prove your perfect love;
Stranger games to pay for, weigh away with words of love.
You brought me to the banquet, and your banner over me was cheer enough.
I wasted in the summertime, tamed, and dined on love,
By leavened bread and mackerel skies I starved, I died
By salted limes and sage, I died for love.
Lay your gifts below the banner, leave, and leave me love:
Bring me ships of sandalwood, and bring me turtledoves.
Bring me hemp or bring me honey, bring me hemlock if you must,
Bring me fennel, bring me figs that look like love.
Bring me wheat and walk away, for there are ruder, redder stains than love
Like sun that blooms behind the eyes, like fingertips, like blood
Or bruised tomatoes on the vine or perfumed wine or wine that tastes of vinegar and mud.
I once forgot your name when spices set the world aflame, exploded on my tongue and made me cough;
When milk and honey saved me, I knew no more use for love.
Bring me flax, then. Bring me copper.
Bring me bream and eel and thyme; bring me linen, for I never have enough;
Bring me books that tell of amber and the last, lost giants inside;
Bring me oxen, barley, birds, but never love.
Bring your banner down and burn it, for I have no love for love
As I have known it. Cinnamon and horses are enough.
Leave and let the apples stay, for I am sick and have no need of love.
Leave and leave the wine behind, that I might taste the bitter vines
That ripened in the sun and bled before the breaking of the bud;
And all to cede to harvest-time
The shoots that burst too bravely from the mud and bloomed, and were not saved by love.
Leave and let the silver save me, I am brave, and silver is enough,
For I will gladly lose to needled pine and winter skies the part of me that chose a kinder love.
There are wilder ways to die
And higher prayers than love,
There are horses in the night and bridled waves at morningtide
To veil the bays with whiter lace than any I have lost,
There are traitor thighs to climb, and herbs in brine, and new Julys to love.
Lay your gifts below the banner. Leave me, love,
For there are oats, and antelopes, and good, red earth to love.
There are dying lines to face in faces that I hate and that I love,
And night-time names, and peacetime plains, and new goodbyes to love.
You brought me to the banquet, and the banquet was enough.
Leave and leave the clementines,
For I am sick of love.