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Isabel Waidner wins the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize with Sterling Karat Gold

Described as “Kafka’s The Trial written for the era of gaslighting”, Waidner's third novel has won the £10,000 prize for innovative fiction.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Isabel Waidner has won the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize for Sterling Karat Gold, a novel described as “Kafka’s The Trial written for the era of gaslighting”. The winner of the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize, which celebrates “fiction at its most novel” and is run in association with the New Statesman, was announced during an online ceremony on Wednesday evening (10 November).

The novel’s protagonist is Sterling, a non-binary migrant cleaner, who one morning is attacked by bullfighters on a London street and arrested. The book, surreal yet prescient, acts as an inquiry into the effects of state violence on gender-nonconforming, working class and black people, taking in time travel, football and the history of Iraq along the way. The chair of judges, memoirist and fiction writer Nell Stevens, described Waidner as bringing “wit, swagger, playfulness and fury to an unfettered journey through an unjust justice system”.

Moments after being announced as the winner, Waidner said: “Thank you to the judges for supporting a radically different vision of what the world could be, if we’re liberated from white middle-class and implicit and explicit nationalist conventions. I didn’t think it was possible for a book like Sterling Karat Gold, and especially for a writer like me, who is British in all the wrong ways, to win my favourite prize in the world, the Goldsmiths Prize.”

Waidner, who was born in the Black Forest in Germany, has lived in London for more than two decades. A novelist and critical theorist, they previously taught at the University of Roehampton and are now a senior lecturer in creative writing and performance at Queen Mary University of London. Sterling Karat Gold is their third novel, following Gaudy Bubble (2017) and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize. They are the first non-binary winner of the prize.

Speaking to the New Statesman earlier this month, Waidner explained the need for “innovative” and “unconventional” fiction: “I have come to think of the British novel as a – if not the – technology for the reproduction of white middle-class values, aesthetics and a certain type of ‘acceptable’ nationalism. So it has to change, and not just subtly either. In my experience, readers are more than prepared to encounter new and unfamiliar forms of writing with curiosity and a sense of adventure, rather than apprehension and defensiveness as is often presumed.”

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In an article for the New Statesman, Goldsmiths Prize judge and New Statesman contributing writer Johanna Thomas-Corr described the verve with which Waidner writes: “The lives of marginalised people are so often portrayed as miserable and dour rather than joyous and hilarious. But Sterling Karat Gold finds poetry and pleasure in this community, its creativity, its diversity, its defiance.”

She continued: “Its imagery and cultural references are rarely drawn from literature but music, art, fashion, football and theatre. A 15th-century Hieronymus Bosch hell panel is discussed alongside Adidas White Angel trainers by Jeremy Scott. And Waidner is as fascinated by the career of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first (and only) openly gay footballer, as they are by that of the painter Robert H Colescott.”

Alongside Stevens and Thomas-Corr, the judging panel comprised the novelist Kamila Shamsie and the poet, playwright and novelist Fred D’Aguiar.

Former winners of the Goldsmiths Prize, now in its ninth year, include Eimear McBride, Ali Smith, Lucy Ellmann and M John Harrison. The other books shortlisted for the 2021 prize were Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett, Assembly by Natasha Brown, A Shock by Keith Ridgway, This One Sky Day by Leone Ross and little scratch by Rebecca Watson.

Isabel Waidner will be in conversation at Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November.

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