11 October 2023

Charles Tripp on this year’s British Academy Book Prize Shortlist

Posted by Charles Tripp

As its title suggests, the British Academy’s Prize for Global Cultural Understanding is intended to recognise outstanding books that shed light both on the ways in which people across the world think and feel about themselves and others, and on the consequences of the actions that follow. Ironically, but tellingly, this may concern wilful and inadvertent misundertandings, and the stories that frame and rationalise such (mis)apprehensions.

Over the course of the past eleven years the Prize has sought out books that reveal, through the quality and originality of their research, the ways in which worlds have been constructed in different eras, regions, and cultures, often cutting through myths to grasp the sometimes surprising, even disconcerting logic of these processes.  Drawing upon work in the social sciences and the humanities, broadly defined, the Prize has this year attracted nearly two hundred submissions from a range of different authors, including journalists, academics and independent writers who were addressing a host of different topics that cannot easily be summarised here. The only stipulation is that the work should be published in English (in the original or in translation) in the United Kingdom. And, of course, it needs to be grounded in outstanding research, and to be accessible to the interested general reader. These are some of the criteria used by the judges to sift through the extraordinarily varied and rich array of submissions to draw up a shortlist from which the winner will be selected, to be announced on 31st October.

The shortlist for 2023 comprises six books, two of them in translation.

In Red Memory - Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution, (Faber & Faber) Tania Branigan, who spent seven years as the Guardian’s China correspondent, explores the Cultural Revolution.  She does so through a series of in-depth and sensitive interviews with people who lived through that violent and destabilising period, as victims, as relatives of the persecuted and as perpetrators.  In doing so, she succeeds in giving us a vivid if disturbing feel for what it must have been like to have experienced the terror but also the elation of those years. At the same time, she brings out the ways in which the Cultural Revolution has been recast, or more often erased, in current narratives of the party and the state, but with this book she also shows how it is remembered against the official grain by those who were caught up in it.

Nandini Das, in Courting India - England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire (Bloomsbury Publishing), tells the story of England’s first diplomatic mission to India in the early 1600s, through a combination of biography and historical narrative, alternating microscopic details with broader panoramas and reflections on the significance of these early encounters.  Through her original use of archives, both Indian and English, we learn how the Mughals and the English understood, and misunderstood, each other, revealing important insights into global connections and changing power dynamics in this pivotal period of world history. Throughout the book Das keeps a dual focus on both England and India; there is no sense that one or the other is the true centre. Both perspectives are kept in equal play, enhanced by an empathetic and deeply researched understanding of the court politics of the Stuart king and of the Mughal emperors.

Daniel Foliard, in The Violence of Colonial Photography (Manchester University Press; tr. Daniel Foliard, Saskia Brown and Martha Evonuk) explores the role of photography in the imperial projects of Great Britain and France from the mid-nineteenth century. He examines the ways in which photography was used not merely to represent but also to frame, to classify and finally to subjugate the colonised, as well as to narrate the colonial wars that provided plentiful if gruesome images. These are reproduced throughout the book, making it a difficult but important work that obliges the reader to reflect on their own responses to the sometimes horrifying photographs on the page. The author often complicates this task in useful ways by his careful research into the context, the framing and time sequencing of an image, reminding us that what we see may be deceptive and is, in any case, only a fragment of a much larger story.

In Black Ghost of Empire, The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation (Allen Lane, Penguin) Kris Manjapra writes with restrained passion, providing a detailed and disturbing account of the false dawn of emancipation that accompanied the formal abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century. Set against the enormity of the transatlantic slave trade and the myths surrounding its ending, this book gives life and memory to the enslaved. Using a rich variety of sources – archival, biographical, memoirs and letters – the author turns an unforgiving eye on the motivations and actions of states whose main preoccupation was to compensate the slave-owners, not to make reparations to the enslaved. For them, new forms of bondage, servitude and indebtedness were devised, maintaining the interests of the system that had profited so greatly from their enslavement and continued to profit from their labour.  

Irene Vallejo, in Papyrus - The Invention of Books in the Ancient World(Hodder & Stoughton; tr. Charlotte Whittle) draws on her knowledge of the ancient classical worlds of Greece and Rome to chronicle literary culture in all its aspects. She describes the ways in which scrolls, then bound books, were made, stored, collected and frequently destroyed whether by accident or design. In doing so, she evokes the passions they aroused, the preoccupations of authors and patrons alike, and the formidable technologies they embodied, as well as the ways in which they brought ideas into conversation and sometimes into conflict. She succeeds in making us look again at a common artefact that we take for granted, but that is replete with rich and diverse histories.

Dimítris Xygalátas’s book Ritual – How seemingly senseless acts make life worth living (Profile Books) is an intriguing exploration of how rituals play a key role in shaping human life. As an anthropologist fascinated by the power, but also the rich diversity of rituals, religious and secular, he takes us on a journey across the world in his quest to unlock the function and meaning of these practices. Some of them are extreme, involving mortification of the flesh through fire, self-flagellation or laceration of hands and knees. Others are less obviously painful but equally elaborate and strange. By examining how rituals transform our inner world and our social being, this book underlines the part they play in the constitution of our humanity

You can hear all six authors in conversation on Monday 30 October at a special in-person and online event, chaired by the award-winning journalist, Rosie Goldsmith.

Professor Charles Tripp FBA is Chair of the Jury for the British Academy Book Prize. He is Professor Emeritus of Politics, SOAS, University of London.