Camilla Townsend Wins the $75,000 Cundill History Prize

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Townsend’s ‘Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs’ uses indigenous Nahuatl language sources and, as juror Anne Applebaum says, ‘uses stories and descriptions of incidents from the distant past.’

Participants in the 2020 Cundill History Prize award program, clockwise from upper left: Dan Snow, Antonia Maioni, Camilla Townsend, William Dalrymple, Peter Frankopan, and Vincent Brown. Image: Cundill History Prize

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Peter Frankopan: It ‘Transforms How We Look at the Past’
In its award presentation today (December 3) led by jury chair Peter Frankopan, the international US$75,000 Cundill History Prize has named Camilla Townsend winner of the 2020 award for her book, Fifth Sun: A History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend (Oxford University Press USA).

Said to be the richest award for nonfiction in the English language, the Cundill is produced by Montreal’s McGill University. Since it began a re-introduction of itself with its 10th anniversary in 2017, the Cundill has positioned itself as one of the most-watched programs of its kind, particularly with the energy of Oxford’s Peter Frankopan in the role of jury chair this year.

Publishing Perspectives‘ world readership will be intrigued to know that Townsend works in numerous languages, including Spanish and Nahuatl, and that this played a key role in her work in Fifth Sun. Here’s a work that has translation at the core of many parts of its success.

One of the key effects of the Cundill’s approach is that its selections are expressly accessible, escaping what Frankopan has told Publishing Perspectives is an undeserved reputation for historical and scholarly writing as being necessarily stilted and obscure.

You hear this in how juror Anne Applebaum now speaks of Fifth Sun and of Townsend’s technique of using storytelling from within the world of her subject to build her themes with contemporary accessibility.

“One of the things Camilla Townsend does very effectively,” Applebaum says, “is use stories and descriptions of individual incidents from the distant past in order to illuminate broader themes. So whether it’s the story of an Aztec princess and why she wanted to sacrifice herself and how Townsend uses that to illustrate the morality of Aztec culture or whether it’s the story of La Malinche, who was Cortez’s native guide and what motivated her and why she helped Cortez organize the conquest, these individual instances make real a piece of history that would otherwise seem very distant and alien to us.”

This is particularly high praise from Applebaum. Some would say that her own  Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Penguin Random House/Doubleday, July 21) should be a Cundill contender. Her book’s readership knows that she, too, uses storytelling in her approach, sometimes doing reconnaissance on her own experiences, to illuminate near-term dangers with the genius of hindsight.

Frankopan, in his presentation of the award, says, “Fifth Sun is a  work of breathtaking originality, accomplishment, and importance.

“Townsend revolutionizes how we should look at Aztec society before, during, and after the arrival of Europeans in Central America. After more than 500 years, we’re finally able to see history through the eyes of the indigenous people themselves rather than those of their conquerors. Not many books completely transform how we look at the past. This is one of those that does.”

The runners up, each receiving US$10,000, are:

Camilla Townsend: ‘I Didn’t Think It Was Possible’

Camilla Townsend reacts as Cundill History Prize jury chair Peter Frankopan announces she’s won the 2020 award. Image: Cundill History Prize

Speaking from New Brunswick, New Jersey—she’s a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University—Townsend was visibly shocked at the news that her book had been chosen.

“I feel the book isn’t really even mine. It belongs in many ways to the people of Mexico and to the indigenous people who wrote the sources.”Camilla Townsend, Cundill History Prize winner

“I thought I knew with certainty that it couldn’t be me,” she said. “I didn’t think it was possible.”

She said to Frankopan on the announcement of her win, “To experience this now in the midst of COVID-19 is even more extraordinary, in the sense that here I am talking to my computer screen. And yet you tell me as a group, as a world that this is true.”

And in an interesting insight into the years of work and discovery the book has meant to her, she said, “I feel the book isn’t really even mine. It belongs in many ways to the people of Mexico and to the indigenous people who wrote the sources. I feel that it belongs to all the people who ever taught me, my language teachers and others.

“It belongs to Rutgers University, which nurtures me and pays me to teach young people and to write. It belongs to Oxford University Press that published it and helped me rewrite the parts that were no good and couldn’t be understood. And now, I suppose, it also belongs to the Cundill organization that’s brought it to the world’s attention, brought these stories to the world’s attention.

“I’d think that I had heard wrong, only nobody is muting me or telling me to stop.”

Earlier, in comments to Snow, she’d said that her studies in the Aztec language, the Nahuatl, were what led her into the work.

“These were stories that hadn’t been told,” she said, “or had been told only from the Spanish language, which gave them a different perspective. I got with the flow and started to write.” Over the course of several summers between academic years, she said, “I realized this was a book that I could write.”

Townsend is the author of among others, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive.

Antonia Maioni: ‘A Fantastic Read’

From left, the 2020 Cundill History Prize jurors are Peter Frankopan, Anne Applebaum, Sujit Sivasundara, Lyse Doucet, and Eliga Gould

In her statement on the news, Antonia Maioni, dean of the faculty of arts at McGill, says that 2020 “was never going to be an ordinary year for the Cundill History Prize.

“But as we started navigating the pandemic, we felt, perhaps more strongly than ever, how important a function our prize is playing in bringing the very best history writing to readers—as guidance, as perspective, as a grounding in historical fact when so much is in a constant, confusing shift.

“The insights of our outstanding jurors, chaired by Peter Frankopan, have shone brightly through our program. They have chosen three fantastically relevant finalists, and an exceptional winner, Camilla Townsend, who has written a transformative book that will change readers’ views the way every Cundill History Prize winner does: as a fantastic read.

As Maioni suggests, the Cundill has stepped up its game this year during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic to add reach to its presentation. On Wednesday (December 2), the program held the annual Cundill Lecture given by the previous year’s winner as a digital event. Julia Lovell, whose win last year was for Maoism: A Global History, published in the United States by Knopf and in the UK and Canada by Penguin’s Bodley Head., spoke at length about her work in an event partnered with HistoryExtra, the site that houses the BBC History and BBC World Histories magazines.

Dan Snow

The Cundill Forum, a discussion among the three finalists, was then held on Wednesday evening, with McGill’s Catherine Desbarats, associate professor of history, moderating.

And today’s winner’s announcement was hosted by Dan Snow of the HistoryHit podcast with the three finalists, and input from the jurors with excerpts from the previous two events. Frankopan made the announcement.

The Timeline YouTube channel was also involved with this part of the program.

More than 300 submissions were received for this year’s program from publishers—only in digital formats which were sent to the jury panel on e-readers.

Peter Cundill

The Cundill History Prize was founded by Peter Cundill (1938-2011) was the founder of the Cundill Value Fund. He established the Cundill History Prize in 2008, two years after being diagnosed with Fragile X Tremor/Ataxia Syndrome, with which he died in London.

One of the best elements of today’s presentation was a short video presentation on Cundill and his life, putting an important and interesting face to the prize’s name.

Below is a collection of comments from the Cundill History Prize 2020 jury on Townsend’s Fifth Sun.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. And more on literary prizes in general is here.  More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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