21 March 2024

A Q&A with Liz Berry, winner of the Writers’ Prize 2024

Posted by John Clegg

On 13 March, Liz Berry's The Home Child was announced as the overall winner of the Writer's Prize (formerly the Rathbones Folio Prize), the only prize in the UK awarded entirely by the votes of other writers. We spoke to Liz about the personal story behind the book, the research that shaped the poems, and how the story of the Home Children continues to be relevant today.


The Home Child is inspired by the story of your great aunt, Eliza Showell. In the acknowledgments, you thank your mother for ‘gifting you Eliza's story’ - I wonder how much of Eliza's story remained in your family, and how much needed researching?

I was always told I had a great aunt who’d emigrated to Canada but the family story was so vague that I imagined it as a glamorous voyage made by a grown-up lady, an emigrant – even that word sounds elegant and full of promise! It was only when my mom began tracing her family history and uncovered Eliza’s emigration records that the more complicated story emerged. Like many families affected by poverty and separation, there’d been a great deal of shame and secrecy, and this was reflected on a national level too.

The research process was fascinating and heartbreaking. I read many first-hand accounts by Home Children and their families, and I worked with the Local History Society in Birmingham and Home Children Canada. I was given permission by the archives at The Library of Birmingham to view Eliza’s Middlemore Children’s Home records and the handwritten letters from her brother. Most movingly, I was able to follow Eliza’s journey from Birmingham to Nova Scotia and had the honour of visiting the small rural site where she’s buried to lay wildflowers on her grave.  

But I also had to imagine an interior life for Eliza, which meant letting my research go a little, and bringing to the poems all I know of love and longing and that beautiful feistiness and vulnerability of being a twelve-year-old girl. 

Did you know from the start that The Home Child was going to be a book-length sequence? Or did it start smaller and grow in the telling?

After I visited Cape Breton, I began writing poems about Eliza and gathering research. I was haunted by her story and wanted to tell it in some way. However, I’d only worked poem to poem before and didn’t really know how to build a narrative or work on anything longer. In fact, I was probably afraid of it for a long time, worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Then one day, brave/foolish, I put a call out on Twitter for help: How do I write a book-long poetic sequence? What should I read? How can I learn and who can I learn from? The response was beautiful and overwhelming (thank you, dear poets!) and gave me the guidance and courage to just get on with it! 

I'd never heard of Home Children or Children's Emigration Homes before reading the book; the scale of it was really shocking to me, especially the statistic about one in ten Canadians being descended from a Home Child. I wonder what sort of response you've had from the relatives of other Home Children? Is there more sense of urgency, now, in recording these stories?

The responses to The Home Child have been profoundly moving. At readings and through letters and emails, I’ve been in touch with descendants both here and in Canada, with social workers, historians, women’s charities and those who work with vulnerable and looked-after children now. It’s a story about migration, poverty, families, grief, love, exploitation and dreaming, and so although it’s a story from the past it’s a story that we’re still living. Vulnerable children still cross borders, our borders, and families in Britain are still affected by terrible poverty. I hope that by sharing stories like Eliza’s, it reminds us how important it is to fight to protect the welfare state and to care for the children who come to us as we would want our own children to be cared for. 

Why are there so many poets with the surname ‘Berry’? I count you, Emily, Wendell and James just for starters. Is there any other surname with so much poetic potency?

Ah, what a sweet name it is – a little poem all of its own! I can’t explain the magic but I’m very honoured to be a branchlet on the Berry Poetry Family Tree. 

Books mentioned in this blog post