Essential – an anthology of creative writing that covers stories from under-represented communities


Creative Future recently published Essential – their 2021 anthology of prose and short stories by writers from communities we don’t see in print often enough. Review by Tom Smith

book cover of Essential - the 2021 anthology

Book cover of Essential – 2021 anthology

The Creative Future Writers’ Award (CFWA) is a national writing development programme which saw 1200 entries (with a 10% increase in the number of entries from unpublished writers of Black, Asian and other racial heritage) from writers who face barriers due to mental health issues, disability, health or social circumstance.

The high number of entries may be attributed to one of two things: 1) an increased awareness of the award due to positive experiences or 2) they have managed to create a safe space for marginalised writers/creators to send their work, knowing it will be judged on merit. I know a lot of writers are hesitant to share their work and I am not diminishing their anguish/worry, but when you are underrepresented and never see yourself in the literature you admire, or even worse you see misrepresentation or caricatures of disability, it plays on your mind, will they accept me as a writer? Will they understand my perspective?

In line with their mission statement the award prioritises development over monetised prizes. I contacted a few of winners via Twitter to ask about their experiences since winning and Silver prose winner Ulka Karandikar said:

“The special thing about working with Creative Future is that they’re in it for the long run. Even after the dust had barely settled on the winners’ event at the Southbank Centre in London, the team were already encouraging me to talk about next steps with one of their knowledgeable staff.”

Highly commended poetry winner Jem Henderson also talked about the help she received prior to the winners’ event in a performance workshop delivered by Lucy English:

“It helped us manage things like reading speed, preparation, thinking about the presentation of the work and the clothes we wore.”

On to the anthology itself. The theme for the 8th annual competition was ‘Essential’ which, although apt and timely, has negative connotations to me (maybe because I work in the Health and Social care sector and associate the word with Covid) However, any misapprehensions I had were squashed when I opened the book and saw they had produced an anthology featuring a wide range of subjects, including mental health/sectioning, dementia and migration. I do wonder how many others will have the same knee-jerk reaction and if it could affect sales. If you have those fears let me assure you, this is not that kind of book and it is well worth buying.

Facing a seated audience is a white woman with pink hair. She is standing at a lectern and reading into a microphone.

Highly Commended – Jem Henderson 2021 credit: Kaleido Studios

The Platinum prize for poetry was awarded to Rhiya Pau’s Enough, which explored immigration. I am not a poetry writer or much of a poetry reader but this piece really spoke to me and had some very evocative language.

The Platinum award for prose was awarded to Shazia Altaf’s Essential Thread. What struck me most about this piece were the style choices; I was instantly drawn to the staccato prose and the stage-like directions used for descriptions, which suited the cold, almost out-of-body, experience you can have with mental health issues, especially depression. Her description of her brother is harrowing and her own lack of influence on the situation is heartbreaking. The ending (no spoilers!) implies the story will continue without the reader and gives you hope without falling into the pitfall of being an unrealistic happy ending. This story is a worthy winner of the top prize.

Other winners which stood out to me were; As a rule by Lumière Chieh, which captured a nice childhood moment, that was personal but identifiable and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs according to a 16-year-old girl lying on a single bed staring at the ceiling in a homeless hostel had some fantastic word choices and possibly the best title I have read in a very long time.

But my favourite story was Bronze prose winner Tidal by Nanci Gilliver. As soon as I finished reading it, I immediately went back to the start to read it again. It was inventive in its premise and certainly sucked you in from the very first paragraph. The story saw the protagonist trying to navigate her way through tricky times like, her “first blood”, visions and dealing with “that mad man Noah” who is building an arc. My one criticism is that there were a couple of prophecies presented that slowed down the pace and sucked you out of the well-crafted world. That minor issue aside, Nanci Gilliver built a believable world with an unbelievable cast, location and time. That has to be applauded.

Essential manages to avoid the obvious and throws you into familiar and foreign worlds with equal expertise. I would recommend this book to anyone and I would wholeheartedly recommend Creative Future to any under-represented writer.

Essential – the 2021 anthology is available by itself or in a bundle.