Orwell Youth Fellows Interviews: Jude Leese and Jennifer Yang
Over the summer the 2020 Fellows have been asking the 2021 Fellows some intriguing questions about their writing process and Youth Prize pieces. With the Prize open for entries for another year, we're delighted to share the first two interviews. Keep an eye on the blog, as we will be publishing more interviews with our 2021 Fellows over the coming weeks and months!
Our first interviewees were 2021 Fellows Jude Leese and Jennifer Yang, and their interviewers were 2020 Fellows Manal Nadeem and Noah Robinson. Read on to hear more about the poetry of political campaigning, the impact of the internet, and the importance of our connection with the material world...
The Orwell Youth Prize 2022 is now open for entries with a new theme: 'Coming Up For Air: Writing the Climate Crisis'. You can also find more information about this year's theme, resources and how to enter on The Orwell Youth Prize website. All this year's winners and runners-up will be invited to join the Youth Fellows, and we hope these interviews will be an inspiration to future entrants.
Manal and Noah interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, Jennifer Yang, about her Youth Prize essay ‘On Keeping a Time Capsule’, the impact of the internet on our lifestyle choices, how personal experience helped inspire the piece - and Virginia Woolf:
MANAL: In your piece, you speak of 'trendy yet disposable items'. What particular modern day sociocultural forces do you think are responsible for accelerating this trend towards us becoming more 'efficient’ - and emotionally disconnected - ‘creatures’?
JENNIFER: I think the internet has changed our way of living greatly. Lots of people say that we are living through the third industrial revolution, and that this revolution is more rapid and influential than the past. Fewer people are reading books because a short video on tiktok is more captivating and digestible - the strenuous task of painstakingly examining a long, complex sentence is just not worth the time. Then the attention span shortens. We become more short-tempered. The internet is turning us into lazier people - we always say we ‘cba’ - and that’s dangerous. What if we decide one day that we ‘cba’ to think for ourselves?
NOAH: I was captivated by the emotional and personal dynamic of your piece and its skilful use in examining the wider topic of human connection. Was there a particular experience that inspired this work and if so how did it change your thinking on the way we connect and the importance of objects, both in the present and for future generations?
JENNIFER: The old man that I mentioned in my essay was real - in fact, I visited him this summer and he is still making beaded animals! What stunned me really was how nihilistic he was - the sophisticated work of art was simply a way of him entertaining himself. The tedious motion of putting beads on strings is repeated everyday like a wary way of dulling the poignant flow of time.
Yet I loved the beaded animal intensely. To the old man it’s merely a symbol of his daily routine, but this is a rarity for me. Our generation is surrounded by items that can be ordered on Amazon within seconds by the click of a mouse. However, there’s only one beaded mouse. It is so difficult to find such unique items nowadays as less and less items are handmade simply because we have lost the patience to do so.
I was also reading Brave New World [a novel by Adolus Huxley first published in 1932] when I was writing the piece, and was particularly intrigued by the ‘ending is better than mending’ notion. My grandparents lived through a time of turmoil, and they told me their parents used to mend their clothes because they were so worn out. Re-education was a particularly dark period in Chinese history and my grandparents lived through it. Interestingly, they’d always bring up their childhood stories, often described in striking detail. I think it’s because people connect better under raw and crude circumstances - an overly privileged and convenient life is easily forgotten, its joys easily neglected. It’s an interesting dynamic to look at.
MANAL: Part of why I found your essay so compelling was because of its keen eye for the small and the mundane - the bronze bell, the beaded mouse. Are there any particular essayists or novelists from this school of writing who you particularly admire?
JENNIFER: My favourite author is Virginia Woolf. With that being said, and with a bit of shame, I’ve only just started reading To the Lighthouse. Woolf is a master of focusing her writing on the small and the mundane and glorifying them and turning domestic items into something grand, something that evokes our collective memory of a certain period. Here’s a sentence from the beginning of Mrs Dalloway, ‘In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’ Just by compiling a list of ubiquitous objects that anyone could spot in London, Woolf is able to appeal to our auditory, visual and tactile senses, transcending us immediately to the centre of London - noisy, passionate, and somewhat familiar…. Woolf is difficult to understand, as she was part of the Modernist movement which sought to make literature incomprehensible and therefore exclusive to the upper class. But I’ve always felt a personal connection with Woolf’s writing, because she has scrutinised, upheld, glorified the most negligible things in life. And, for me, that’s somewhere to start.
Manal also interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, Jude Leese, about his poem ‘Work Experience as a Young Campaigner’, the inspiration behind it, and his process crafting the poem:
MANAL: I loved the mood of your poem - a kind of strained, muted optimism. Can you provide some insight and context into the ‘work experience as a young campaigner’ that inspired this poem?
JUDE: I was on work experience with the Labour Party when I was fourteen, assisting a truly great local councillor from Milton Keynes: the now sadly missed Kevin Wilson MBE. I worked with him for two weeks, and what struck me most then, and frequently in my experiences since, was the real spirit of wanting to make useful, concrete change that local politics is really driven by, and Kevin in particular was driven by. As ever, 2018 wasn’t an easy time to be a politician, but I observed that those efforts really meant something to people, and I see it as an example of how vital politics can be, in spite of the reputation it may have gained on a national level. I think that’s the source of optimism in my piece, that I do believe there is essentially a genuine goodness in local political life, albeit strained by the national mood of the times.
MANAL: I loved how skilfully you deployed line breaks to deliver particularly punchy and profound lines in your poem. (My favourites being, ‘in the hope that their lifespans will be longer than/seconds between door and the bin’ and, ‘how hard it is to convince them/that this is their town too’). From a technical perspective, were you conscious of where and when you wanted to use line breaks, or was it an intuitive process?
JUDE: In terms of something like line breaks, I would say it’s probably a mix of both intuition and consciousness. It’s intuitive in the sense of me feeling the words, how they sound and how and where they might flow best. However, at the same time I am somewhat conscious of particular phrases that could have an impact when someone were to read them. Like I can guess where it may be good to leave a line out on its own, or have it end the stanza.
I also like that you mentioned that first line; it’s about campaign brochures. It comes from a saying Kevin told me, early on in my time with him, about the importance of making an effort on getting the leaflets seen and read, as a lot of people just bin them. It’s an amusing anecdote about the disconnect which can occur between parties and people, so it’s probably in there for those reasons.
MANAL: Are there any particular poets (living or dead!) who you consider your favourites?
JUDE: Let’s see... this won’t really relate to my own work so much but I really liked a John Keats poem I read for GCSE called “La Belle Dame sans Merci”; I think I picked it for the exam too! It had lovely imagery and a lot of feeling, the way much of the romantic period’s writing does, so I suppose I like Keats and that sort of style. On a slightly different note, John Cooper Clarke can be a great laugh if we’re looking at more modern figures.
The Orwell Youth Prize 2021, 'A New Direction: Starting Small', was sponsored by Rethinking Poverty: The Webb Trust.
The Orwell Youth Fellows is a project in progress, encompassing winners and runners up from the 2020 and 2021 Youth Prizes. Together, the group are forming ideas, starting conversations and developing writing that is responsive to the society we are living in and that supports engagement with the prize. Find out more here.