2019 Berlin Writing Prize winner – Sarah Perry

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Congratulations to our own S.K. Perry winner of the first prize with her entry A Wide Neon Yell.

Sarah is practice-research PhD at MMU. Her critical-creative thesis aims to answer: How do we write sex “better”? through practice-based research. It comprises a critical enquiry and an original work of literary fiction. My framework for the critical enquiry is embedded in the seminal insights of intersectional feminist theorist bell hooks; Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and the Critical Race Theory movement; and sex positivist theorists and practitioners Meg-John Barker, Justin Hancock, and Petra Boynton. This framework asserts the deep subjectivity brought to sexual activity, the significance of power dynamics to equitable intimate relationships and consent, and the need to challenge societal shame and stigma around sex.

Providing context for the emergent field of feminist sex writing in literary fiction, Eimear McBride, Leone Ross, Patricia Duncker, and Michelle Roberts posed the question of how sex could be written better at a 2017 Royal Society of Literature event. McBride (McBride, 2017) critiques both the normalisation and eroticisation of non-consensual violence during sex in literature, and the patriarchal lens through which arousal has historically been written, citing the Bad Sex Awards to demonstrate the prevalence of misogynistic and hetero-normative tropes in contemporary fiction. She argues that throughout English literary tradition, female characters consistently have sex without a context of empowerment, or with coerced or unenthusiastic consent. The British Council’s January 2018 conference in Berlin saw feminist writers re-imagine literature’s depictions of sex and explore fictional depictions of sexual liberation. These are enquiries I will extend – acknowledging the socio-literary problems posed by inter-sectional feminist writers – and seeking to answer how we start to solve them: how we do the writing of sex ‘better’. In turn, my creative work – a new novel – asks what it is to recover from gendered violence, and how – in a world where sexuality and shame are so closely tied – women can experience sexual joy, resilience, and freedom.

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