7 October 2021

British Academy Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2021

Posted by Patrick Wright

The London Review Bookshop is delighted to be supporting this year’s British Academy Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. This non-fiction prize, worth £25,000 to the winner, is awarded annually to a book that contributes to public understanding of world cultures and to the creation of more positive inter-cultural relations worldwide. Chair of judges Patrick Wright introduces this year’s shortlist.

The judges this year are the social anthropologist Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, the historian Professor Catherine Hall, Channel 4 News broadcaster and journalist Fatima Manji, and the author and lawyer Professor Philippe Sands. Starting in the spring, we worked our way through over a hundred submitted titles, guided by two not always easily reconciled principles. We seek to commend and publicise books that show originality, flair and reliability in their research and argument. We are also looking for books that are accessible to interested readers outside their own specialist field. The process can be exhilarating but it’s painful too, since we invariably leave valuable books behind on the way. This year we have settled on a shortlist of four titles.   

In Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, the Scottish writer Cal Flyn travels to some disconcerting and often plain scary places in the course of exploring a highly topical theme – in which ‘rewilding’ is combined with natural as well as human-induced  ecological disaster.  Starting southwest of Edinburgh with a collection of vast slag heaps, or ‘bings’, left over from 19th century oil extraction, she pulls her reader through a disconcerting array of ruined and damaged places on land and, in some cases, under sea. The itinerary includes Chernobyl and various demilitarized buffer zones in Cyprus and elsewhere. There’s Montserrat after the volcano went up in 1995, the city of Detroit, an abandoned collective farm in Estonia, poisoned rivers on America’s coast, dried up and toxic sites in the Californian desert. These sites hint at what may be to come with ongoing climate change and rising sea levels. Interestingly, though, Flyn’s book is far from only being depressing: over and again she finds remarkable signs of resilience, whether it be of nature returning or adjusting, or of people (including a few who might have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel) returning to places once understood as wholly uninhabitable. It is great to find an author scrutinising these man-made dead seas and bombed-out and abandoned places while also struggling against ‘end of the world’ narratives of the kind that can surround the ecological cause with a disabling kind of apocalyptic fatalism.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Today is at once a work of testimony to its subject, a manifesto for the renewal of America, and an at times angry lament over the fact that the injustices Baldwin saw all around him after the violent defeat of the civil rights movement have persisted into a new century that continues to resist the second Reconstruction demanded by Martin Luther King and others.  Baldwin was a novelist, but Glaude, who has been reading him over most of his own life, is here concerned with Baldwin’s non-fiction writing, starting with The Fire Next Time, and continuing up through The Price of The Ticket (1985) until his death in France in 1987. His book testifies to Baldwin’s brilliance, while also offering an unillusioned but sympathetic account of the traumatising impact of defeat and inertia, one that makes stark sense given that Glaude is writing during the presidency of Donald Trump. This is a great read, deftly presented, and sharp in its engagement both with Baldwin, who is beautifully evoked in his Paris exile, his famous trip to the South, and in his often-lonely battles with despair—and with the reality that the systematic injustices he addressed continue to blight lives in the present. Abiding proof too, and not only thanks to the grounds for personal self-criticism Glaude sometimes finds in Baldwin’s example, that writers can be useful, even if they are not always the ones the book industry promotes.

Mahmood Mamdani, meanwhile, has taken a different approach to one of the most important issues of our time in Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. For decades now, he has been concerned with understanding why so many newly independent nations in Africa and the Middle East have emerged into a post-colonial era under governments that have soon started discriminating against people within their borders:  excluding them from authentic belonging within the nation, reducing them to a dismal life as ‘permanent minorities’ and, in too many examples, submitted them to genocidal ethnic cleansing. The investigation takes Mamdani back into the much longer history of European colonialism and the nation-building carried out by settlers. He starts with colonial conquest, and the containment and effective ‘cleansing’ of indigenous populations, notably in the North American example. He then follows the thread into Nazi Germany, noting that Hitler, who was inspired by America’s treatment of the Indian peoples, was not the only one to practise ethnic cleansing. After the war, the Allies too carried out massive evictions and fatal transportations as they tried to recarve populations with the aim of bringing them into a kind of ethnic concordance with the revised borders of post war Eastern Europe. Next in Mamdani’s account, comes Israel and Sudan and, as the relieved reader may rejoice to find, also South Africa, where Mamdani allows us to take heart at a flawed but still shining attempt to get beyond this chronic pathology. Avoiding any tendency to blame the whole past disaster on a few convicted leaders (Mamdani is fiercely critical of the Nuremburg trials on this score), South Africa has been making its way towards a genuinely political solution in which people have emerged from both sides of the colour-line to build a new state in which the status of ‘survivor’ can be held in common. In short, this is a really important book. It provides a new framework for understanding an utterly pressing problem. While quite aware of the scale of difficulty involved in bringing about substantial change, Mamdani also has encouraging ideas about what might be done about it. 

Finally, we were delighted to include Sujit Sivasundaram’s Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire. The Age of Revolution, opening with the American Revolution (1765-91), and extending to France and Haiti, and prompting fierce counter-revolutionary reaction in the remaining imperial centres, is often told as a story that centred on Europe and the Atlantic. Sivasundaram invites us to consider what this history looks like when viewed from the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Islands, a South Asian part of the world that barely features in many histories of the period. The result is a fascinating and highly informative account of an empire that is here fundamentally reliant on water rather than land movements, in which the ship is the primary (unstable) vehicle, while seas and rivers are the unpredictable roads, and the settler might be an escaped convict or a savage pirate who manages to achieve more respectable coding thanks to the colonial process. The book follows those ships around – to South Africa, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, the Bay of Bengal, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands beyond. It is a remarkable feat of recovery which does indeed transform our picture of the time. Sivasundaram uses archives, and also objects and images, with great flair. He manages to recover the material for an extraordinary collection of stories, and he does so in a vivid way, while also placing a new and transforming emphasis on the resourcefulness, intelligence and enduring agency of the indigenous peoples drawn into this previously under-regarded theatre of empire.   

Meet the four shortlisted writers at a special online event on Wednesday 13 October. This event will be chaired by Fatima Manji, Channel 4 News broadcaster, journalist and author of Hidden Heritage: Rediscovering Britain’s Lost Love of the Orient. Tickets are free – book via the British Academy here.

Books mentioned in this blog post