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UEA Scholarships Reception Speech 2017

UEA Scholarships Reception Speech 2017


Secretary of the Booker Prize Foundation Eve Smith with scholarship recipient Alake Pilgrim

The Booker Prize Foundation scholarship at UEA is worth up to £25,000, awarded annually to a student enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) and covers course fees, living costs and travel expenses. Read new recipient Alake Pilgrim's speech below from the UEA Scholarships Reception 2017.          

Good evening. My name is Alake Pilgrim and I’m on the MA in Creative Writing here at UEA. I’m from Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean and without the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship, I would not have been able to be part of this UEA community. So on behalf of all the scholarship recipients, I want to say thank you to each one of our donors, who have made it possible for us to be here.

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, but my journey to the Creative Writing programme at UEA has been, shall we say, circuitous. Two years ago, I had a son, Chiedu, who was born with severe liver disease. At times, we didn’t know if he would survive. Even as we saw a slew of doctors, my family and I prayed because there are those happenings in life that seem beyond our power to control or even fully understand.

Then, in the second half of 2015, something miraculous began to happen. My son’s liver, the only organ inside the body capable of regenerating itself, began to heal.

When my son was ill, I questioned so much about my life and my dream of being a writer. To begin with, writing stories can seem like a really impractical pursuit. In my country, for example, people often stare at you speechless after you say you’re a writer, and then ask, with genuine curiosity, ‘What you going to do with that?’

Also, for those of us who have been through difficult times, which might be most of us, there’s this growing sense of tiredness that can creep in, where we begin to wonder if what we’re saying or doing makes any difference in the face of life’s big challenges.

In times like this, the answers we seek can seem really faint or unclear – like a sound coming from a long way away.

But as my grandmother used to say, ‘It wouldn’t always be so.’

As my son became well, I learned that hope is a stubborn thing. Cut it down and it springs up again and again… I began to look for ways to keep writing. That’s when I applied to UEA, the most renowned Creative Writing programme in the UK and perhaps the world. You can imagine how I felt when I was accepted! There was only one small problem. Without a full scholarship, I could not afford to come here.

The day I learned that I’d had won the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship, felt like a hallucination at first! Then, it felt like a turning point. It was as if someone had said, ‘Yes, keep going. Your dreams are not crazy. The hard work and sacrifices that you and your parents and maybe your parents’ parents have made, will bear fruit.’ For me, this scholarship was an affirmation of hope.

Now that I’m here, I’ve come to see the writing workshop as a kind of metaphor for my time at UEA. For the uninitiated among us, ‘Workshop’ is where each student brings their stories to be read and critiqued by their fellow students and the professor. If that sounds a bit intense, it is. Workshop is not a utopia. It is not a neutral space. We don’t all start from the same place. We come with our abilities, pasts, questions, preferences, even prejudices. We each have our blind spots. Sometimes people really appreciate your work. Sometimes they don’t.

But I’ve come to see Workshop, and my time here at UEA, as a kind of precious moment: an opportunity to grow through the (sometimes uncomfortable) process of seeing each other across our differences. Workshop, like life at UEA, is based on the idea that we can learn from each other. It’s one of the things that makes our time here so special. And it works, not only because of our amazing faculty, but because of your support that brought each of us, through our miraculous journeys, together at this time, and in this place.

So, to the Booker Prize Foundation and all of the donors here tonight, to the faculty and staff of UEA – Thank you so much for using your powers for good – and for seeing us as people with gifts, hard work, and dreams that can be fulfilled.

To my fellow students, I want to say that I know the road isn’t easy, but don’t give up hope. Even as we face the sad state of our world, what we say matters. What we do matters.

Thank you for being here.