Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant Wins Prestigious TS Eliot Poetry Prize

Jamaican poet Jason Allen-Paisant was announced the winner of the distinguished TS Eliot Prize in a ceremony at London’s Wallace Collection at the beginning of the year. The prize comes with a £25,000 award. Allen-Paisant was presented the award for his book, “Self-Portrait as Othello,” which the contest judges described as a “book with large ambitions met with great imaginative capacity, freshness, and technical flair.” The judges’ panel included poets Paul Muldoon, Sasha Dugdale, and Denise Saul.

Links Shakespeare’s character with today’s immigrants

The prize-winning book is the author’s second collection, and it has also won the Forward Prize in October 2023 and is on the shortlist for the Writers’ Prize, previously known as the Rathbones Folio Prize. The Guardian newspaper also named it one of the best poetry books of 2023. In the book, Allen-Paisant links Shakespeare’s Moorish character, who often faces treatment as an outsider, and the experience of Black immigrants now. According to the Guardian’s Fiona Sampson, the collection describes a “deep, generous interrogation of masculinity” and an “elevation of the maternal” that is the center of many Caribbean families.

About Jason Allen-Paisant

Allen-Paisant, 43, was raised in Manchester, Jamaica. His mother studied to become a teacher, and his father left before his birth. He lived with his grandparents who were yam farmers in his early childhood in Coffee Grove, Jamaica, and said that for much of his life, he was obsessed with upward mobility because farming wasn’t “cool.” At age five, he moved to Porus to live with his mother who had qualified as a teacher. This was the age he realized that his grandmother wasn’t his mother, calling this “a real trauma.” His grandmother features strongly in many of the poems, and while she did not have much education, she ensured that her daughter and grandson did. She was the person who taught the author how to read, telling him, “You gotta read your books! Take them books seriously.” Her teachings took root, and Allen-Paisant earned a degree at the University of the West Indies in Kingston and received a scholarship to pursue a doctorate at Oxford University.

Why Othello?

Allen-Paisant said it was probably because of the parallels between his life and that of Othello that led him to focus on the character. He began thinking about how the character could be viewed differently through a Black lens, and in writing, thought about his father as he wrote about Black masculinity, which became a critical theme in the prize-winning work. The father of Allen-Paisant traveled extensively and lived in England and the United States. He is now living in Ethiopia, and the author plans to travel there to meet with his father for the first time.

The poet’s reaction to winning

Allen-Paisant, a senior lecturer in critical theory and creative writing at Manchester University, said it was “mad” to become the winner of the TS Eliot Prize, being selected from a shortlist of authors that he had taught to his students. Now that he has children of his own, he wants to share information about the family lineage with them. He said that he doesn’t need anything material or emotional from his father at this point, but he wants to “hear him out.” He added that he loves “talking about awkward things that nobody wants to talk about.” In his acceptance speech, he noted that he was given a platform to talk about topics that matter, including the war in Gaza, and cited the late Jamaican artist, Benjamin Zephaniah as an inspiration.

Poetry set aside for now

Allen-Paisant will put his poetry aside for the moment as he focuses on a memoir-nature book scheduled for publication in 2024. He also said he is writing fiction “in secret” and may try to publicize it at some point in the future. He said that, now, after many years of trying to distance himself from his origins, he has accepted his heritage and knows himself now. He noted that the name “Paisant,” which he took from his Breton wife, means “peasant,” and represents an acknowledgment of his family’s past. “It does feel like coming full circle,” he says.