British Academy Book Prize Announces Its 2021 Shortlist

In News by Porter Anderson

Following the Al-Rodhan partnership’s seed funding, the British Academy now carries this nonfiction prize forward.

Image: British Academy

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

‘Cultural Understanding’
No, it’s not you. When last we heard from the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, it was January 19. Parts of London looked like a ghost town, and the award in question was still the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Today (September 7), as we bring you news of the program’s shortlist, the award has a new name but, happily, a secure mission.

The British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, as far as is discernible at this point, maintains the original goal of honoring and raising up a book that contributes “to public understanding of world cultures.”

The program was created in 2013 by the British Academy “in partnership with Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan with the aim of establishing it as a significant force in global publishing and prizegiving. Across the last eight years,” a statement reads, “these objectives have been most successfully accomplished, and there is now a high level of international awareness of the prize and a distinguished array of shortlisted authors and eventual winners. Their work explores many different aspects of global cultural understanding and combines the highest academic quality with a determined resolve to reach the broadest possible public audience.”

Nayef Al-Rodhan

The naming of the award, of course, had to do with funding, and the seed capital supplied by the original arrangement with Al-Rodhan has come to its end. Al-Rodhan, as you may recall, is the man behind the Sustainable History site and concept. His own next book is a revised edition of his intriguingly titled Emotional Amoral Egoism: A Neurophilosophical Theory of Human Nature and Its Universal Security Implications (Lutterworth Press, October 28). We have only to look at the furor around issues of mask mandates and the public good to imagine where a study of “emotional amoral egoism” might take us.

Significantly, Al-Rodhan is a member of the Global Future Council on Frontier Risks at Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum. The generosity of the seed funding provided by his partnership has done its work, as the academy says, establishing the prize as a key feature in the UK’s dense copse of book awards. The academy has made a wise move in continuing the program. And the special character of this prize’s essential internationalism, discerning humanism, and reliable appreciation for critical thinking makes that very good news for authors, publishers, and readers. Many of us can easily thank Al-Rodhan for bringing the award into being, and the academy for now ensuring its future.

As in the past, the award carries a purse of £25,000 (US$34,631). And in this ninth year of the program, the four shortlisted selections are being characterized as dealing with “urgent and globally significant topics.” The winner is to be announced on October 26.

British Academy Book Prize Shortlist 2021

Authors shortlisted for the 2021 British Academy Book Prize are, from left, Cal Flyn; Eddie S. Glaude Jr.; Mahmood Mamdori; and Sujit Sivasundaram

Title Author Publisher, Imprint
Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
(Editor’s note: the American subtitle from Viking is Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape)
Cal Flyn William Collins
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Penguin Random House, Chatto & Windus
Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities Mahmood Mamdani Harvard University Press, Belknap Press
Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire Sujit Sivasundaram  William Collins
Patrick Wright: ‘A Globally Significant Problem’

Patrick Wright

In a prepared statement for today’s announcement of the shortlist, jury chair Patrick Wright is quoted, saying, “Through meticulous research and compelling argument, each writer shortlisted for this important prize casts new light on a globally significant problem, raising important questions, and suggesting the lessons that might be learned for the future.

“Each of the selected books reaches out to invite the reader to make their own interrogation and thereby to participate in an increase of ‘global understanding.’

“In different ways, the books all speak directly to the urgent challenges of the times in which we live.”

Wright, as you’ll recall, is joined this year on the jury by Philippe Sands, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Catherine Hall, and, from the 2020 jury, Fatima Manji.

Julia Black

Speaking for the academy, its newly named president, Julia Black, says, “The British Academy is honored to support this unique nonfiction book prize which celebrates exceptional writers who illuminate the interconnections and divisions that shape cultural identity worldwide.

“This year’s shortlist shows the breadth and depth of the humanities and social sciences and the vital role they can play in deepening our understanding of people, cultures and societies.”

The four shortlisted authors are to participate in a digital event on October 13 in partnership with the London Review Bookshop. The event is free of charge but requires registration here.

As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, the 2020 winner of the Al-Rodhan Prize was Hazel V. Carby for her Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (Verso Press).

In Imperial Intimacies, the award organizers said, Carby weaves her family’s story into the history of Britain and that of Jamaica as it was shaped under the British Empire.

Prior wins include:

  • Toby Green for A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (2019)
  • Kapka Kassabova for Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (2018)
  • Timothy Garton Ash for Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2017)
  • Carole Hillenbrand for Islam: A New Historical Introduction (2016)
  • Neil MacGregor for A History of the World in 100 Objects and Germany: Memories of a Nation (2015)

Jurors working this year with chair Patrick Wright on the British Academy Book Prize are, from left, Philippe Sands, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Catherine Hall, and, from the 2020 jury, Fatima Manji

More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing and book award programs is here, and more from us on the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize is here

And more 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 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.