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Reflections on an essay contest

The Bergen international essay competition was launched this summer by the Bergen International Literary Festival for Non-Fiction and Fiction (LitFestBergen). Open to anyone under the age of 30, its subject was My Generation – a powerful topic.

Soon after the competition opened, the essay inbox began to hot up. One entry after another rolled in, from Nigeria, Canada, Paraguay, Indonesia, Sweden, Scotland and beyond. They came from a 10-year-old, a 28-year-old, many teenagers, a young father, an expectant mother and an orphan. Contestants included an architect, a nurse and a rhythmic gymnast. That inbox really seemed to be filling with reflections from the whole world.

The deadline for entries was 1 October. A few weeks later, I’ve read almost 550 essays. They’ve been written by young people from no less than 90 countries. I myself belong to the age group invited to compete, which is why I’ve undoubtedly felt a sense of personal recognition in much of what I read. But other depictions are quite fantastically remote to a privileged northern woman like me. Like the fear of being abducted – not so much for the act itself, but because it would bring dishonour to my family. Or the anxiety that I’d be unable to fall in love with a real person, because screen apparitions have got the upper hand over my life. Or the knowledge that the consequences of climate changes wrought by human activity, primarily through decisions taken in the west, are already visibly destroying the infrastructure of the country I call home. I was perhaps naive in thinking, before starting out on all these entries, that they’d have no noticeable effect on me. But now, after reading works which I often think must have been deeply therapeutic for their authors, it’s as if I’ve become a little acquainted with these other young people – for good and ill.

Naturally, all the entries can’t pass through the eye of the needle and be rewarded with prizes and acclaim, even though the eminent jury has an overwhelming number of good candidates to choose between. So I really wish that I could give an in-depth response to every single essay. But that’s naturally impossible. There simply isn’t enough time. And, truthfully, I not sure what I should say to the Nigerian who wrote about police brutality or the South Korean who described alcohol abuse. Nor do I know how to respond to the Indian who wrote so beautifully and vividly about the battery life of their mobile phone. Or the Briton who had lost faith in herself as a good daughter. But then it isn’t the intention that I should say anything, either.

What I found to run like a refrain through a great many of the essays was both a fear of and a hopeful curiosity about what the future would look like. That emerged particularly from texts about mental health, Greta Thunberg, becoming parents and economic challenges. Others expressed how grateful they were to have been born at just this time. That came across in the way a number of the writers looked back to the experiences of their parents, and in proud depictions of how effective and creative daily life can become through the ability to master social media.

What I’ve felt after finishing my reading is something we’ve always known: ultimately, all of us want secure and meaningful relationships, we want to feel a sense of achievement in our daily lives, and we want to be able to communicate both as a group and as an individual in a globalised world. And these desires have been communicated through an overwhelmingly diverse mix of creative methods and formal devices at a high level of quality.


Christina Stensland Olsen, trainee

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