Alumna’s debut collection makes long list for Dylan Thomas Prize

Ex nihilo, Latin for “to create something out of nothing”, is the title of York alumna Adebe D. A.’s first book of poems. It has already created ripples across the Atlantic Ocean, where it was recently longlisted for the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize, worth £30,000 – a sizeable something for a debut collection by a young writer and spoken word artist.

“I’m really happy. It’s more than the goal of publishing that’s important, it’s having people believe in your work,” says Adebe DeRango-Adem, who prefers to use the shortened version of her name – Adebe D.A.

The Dylan Thomas Prize offers one of the largest prizes for young writers published in English and under the age of 30. This year’s long list consists of 16 literary works – poetry, novels and a play – by writers from Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa and Somalia.

The whole creative process and search for identity are essentially the act of creating something out of nothing, says Adebe D. A.. “In a sense it speaks to the artistic impulse of creation, but ex nihilo also signifies a movement forward and away from nihilism, which is a will to nothingness. It is about the triumph of the imagination, seeing chaos as awareness.”

Ex nihilo (Frontenac House) has a political as well as a cultural edge. It deals with ghosts and bygone eras, and what it means to exist. “The possibility that the present is a continued struggle against nihilism, marked by the will to create, offers important questions about identity and heritage,” she says. “Out of what matter do we form our identities? How are we different now than in the past? What pasts unite me with other people?” Her poems are also a response to the annihilation of identities struggling to exist within an impossibly post-racial world.

Adebe D. A. (BA Spec. Hons. ’08, MA ’09), who has been published in the Canadian Woman Studies Journal, The Claremont Review, Canadian Literature, CV2 and the Toronto Star, began writing the pieces that would make up the collection when she was 19 and doing her bachelor of arts in English at York. She wasn’t content with simply writing poetry for the page, however; she was driven to perform it as well, and some of her written work became part of her spoken word acts. They have that kind of energy and verve.

Right: Adebe D. A.

“The spoken word is still very much and alive and thriving and what compelled me into writing poetry in the first place,” she says. “My earliest poems were written, but I think I found my voice literally and figuratively through spoken word. It gives the poetry another life and lets you reach out to other people and get them involved with the poetry…It transcends boundaries of expectation between stage and page and is about being more than one thing.”

This is not the first time her poetry has been recognized. In 2005, she became Toronto’s first Junior Poet Laureate after winning the Toronto Poetry Competition, hosted by the Toronto Star. And in 2007, her chapbook of poems, Sea Change, was published by Burning Effigy Press.

A former assistant editor for Existere, York’s journal of arts and literature, Adebe D. A.’s collection came about after she entered her manuscript in the Dektet – A Celebration of Canadian Poetry 2010 competition, put on by Frontenac House in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Ex nihilo was one of 10 chosen to be published from more than 200 entries. She travelled to Edmonton and Calgary this spring with the other nine Dektet authors to read from her work.

“It all sort of came together from my time at York and working at Existere,” she says.

The official launch of the Dektet competition’s winning books will take place Sept. 22, from 7 to 9pm, at Revival, 783 College St. in Toronto.

After winning the Dektet competition, she decided to take “a leap of faith” and enter the Dylan Thomas Prize competition. She’s glad she did. Until the short list is announced in September, she will keep her fingers crossed. The winner will be unveiled in December.

She is currently busy editing the forthcoming anthology from Inanna Publications, Other Tongues, by and about mixed-race women.

Adebe D. A. will read at the Words Alive Literary Festival on Sept. 18 along with fellow York alumni Nino Ricci and Jacob Scheier, both Governor General’s Literary Award winners.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer