‘Reading lets you slide in and out of worlds’: 16-year-old Lancashire writer Nabiha Ali talks inspiration, awards, and hopes for the future

On the very day that entries closed for the 2022 BBC Young Writers’ Award with Cambridge University closed, Nabiha Ali looked at what she’d written and decided to start all over again. Searching for something different, something more, the East Lancashire-born writer, one of the North West’s finest budding talents, simply put pen to paper and started writing.

The end result, a moving and powerful piece rich in detail and description titled Dandelions, was a smash hit. Described as being ‘quietly beautiful’ by judges, the piece was praised for its vivid descriptions which read like a ‘story in every sentence’. Conjuring up deep and textured imagery with every simile and metaphor, Dandelions stood out for its honest purity.

Nabiha’s piece was duly shortlisted for the award despite her last-minute re-drafts, earning the accolade of being the youngest writer to make the final cut. Dandelions was read aloud on the BBC Radio website by the co-founder of the Wildcard Theatre Company Maimuna Memon. And, while Nabiha didn’t quite didn’t win, she knows she’s achieved so much.

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“Writing has always been something I’ve been interested in,” says Nabiha, 16. “I loved reading from a very young age - my mum used to get us loads of books, so there was always that interest and, when I was about nine, I started to develop an interest in writing myself. I started with little stories and it went from there.

Nabiha Ali

“I love the fact that you can slide in and out of a different world when you’re reading - you’re yourself, but you’re other people at the same time and you can then leave and go into another world just like that,” she adds. “You can pick up a new book and be a different person; reading just lets you experience so many different things.”

With Dandelions inspired by the Frank O’Hara poem Having a Coke with You, Nabiha is also a fan of the classics, particularly George Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Also a keen reader of contemporary writing from outlets such as the New Yorker, her tastes are variegated indeed.

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“When I was 15, I started considering my writing more seriously and I started submitting my work to different competitions and magazines,” says Nabiha. “I got shortlisted a couple of times for my poetry, but the BBC award was major. I never expected to be shortlisted and, it was only when I got the email asking if they could call me that I had an inkling.

“I just gave a tiny shriek and was like ‘oh!’” she adds. “It was lovely, just amazing, especially as I’d written something which I’d crafted during GCSE English creative writing sessions and was thinking of submitting it until the last day. I just drafted something completely different last minute and submitted that instead - I’m not sure why but I’m glad I did!

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Nabiha Ali (centre)

“I didn’t really consider the concept for Dandelions, the story just came to me as I was writing,” Nabiha explains of her piece, which features a protagonist reflecting on the memory of small moments with a man close to her, exploring how significance can be found in even simple experiences. “I’m really pleased with how it turned out.”

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Having volunteered with Burnley Youth Theatre over the summer, Nabiha has since started college, where she is studying English language and literature as well as business. When she’s not writing - she has a reputation for scribbling ideas down on any scrap of nearby paper - Nabiha enjoys walks and watercolour painting. And she can certainly paint a picture.

“Dandelions is a lot more flowery, romantic, and descriptive in terms of style, but I’m trying to move away from that slightly,” she admits. “I’ve been reading a lot of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood and, when I’ve been writing lately, I’ve been leaning more towards a more gothic style. The use of colour imagery and metaphor is really special.”

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Now in its eighth year, the BBC Young Writers’ Award with Cambridge University 2022 was open to all writers between the ages of 14 and 18 and was created to discover and inspire the next generation of writers. In fact, the award has a reputation for unearthing the short story stars of the future.

Nabiha Ali
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Past winners include Lottie Mills, who was shortlisted at 16 before winning it at 18 and getting a publishing deal for her debut short story collection Monstrum; Tabitha Rubens, who won the 2020 HG Wells International Short Story Competition; Reyah Martin, who won the 2020 Canada/Europe Commonwealth Short Story Prize; and Brennig Davies, who won the coveted Crown literary prize at the Urdd Eisteddfod, a Welsh language cultural festival.

“What a year of exceptional entries,” says Radio 1’s Katie Thistleton, Chair of the 2022 BBC Young Writers’ Award Judging Panel, which also featured author and co-founder of Black Girls’ Book Club Melissa Cummings-Quarry, poet Nikita Gill, YouTuber and digital creator Joel Rochester, and Irish novelist and podcaster Caroline O’Donoghue.

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“It’s been an absolute privilege to read so many bold and yet quietly intimate stories of such astonishing quality,” she adds. “Relationships seem to be a real focus for our shortlisted writers this year, and yet each has found a totally unique and original, sometimes subversive, way to explore the subject, whether drawing on lived experience, or subjects they are passionate about.

“I’m in awe, and I know my fellow judges feel the same. Each and every writer on this list has a brilliant writing future ahead of them and I can’t wait to see what they do next.”

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Nabiha Ali

"These stories are tales so rich in imagery, lyrical words, and unique plots,” says Katie’s fellow judge Nikita Gill. “I feel honoured to have read through these truly exceptional stories and would like to commend all the writers for the way they have handled even the most difficult subject matter with nuance and great care.

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“The quality of this year's entries is beyond brilliant and I look forward to seeing these writers continue to thrive in their excellent work."

Another of those to cast their eye over the shortlisted pieces, including Nabiha’s Dandelions, was Dr Bonnie Lander Johnson, a fellow, lecturer, and Director of Studies at Cambridge University, who was impressed by the sheer standard of writing on display. “Urgently relevant, thoughtful, and funny, these pieces will surprise and entertain,” she said.

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“The BBC Young Writers’ Award with Cambridge University continues to highlight brilliant prose from emerging writers - a changing world needs stories more than ever, [so] we encourage all budding writers, regardless of their background, to share with us their vision of the world we all live in.

“And we encourage all readers, regardless of their age, to sit down and enjoy the craft of these young people.”

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Still just 16, there are sure to be many awards to come for Nabiha should she continue on her current trajectory. And, in the meantime, she says she’ll definitely keep writing. “I know it’s ambitious, but I’m hoping to get to the point where I can write full-time as a career,” Nabiha says. “I’m going to continue writing - I’m still submitting to lots of different literary magazines, so hopefully I can make a career of it going forwards.”

Nabiha Ali