Sujit Sivasundaram Wins the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize

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British Academy jurors name Sujit Sivasundaram as this year’s winner for his portrayal of ‘Indigenous peoples in the Indian and Pacific oceans’ in his nonfiction book ‘Waves Across the South.’

Sujit Sivasundaram. Image: University of Cambridge, Lloyd Mann

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

‘A Riot of Ingenuity’
We’re now following up on the shortlist released last month in the newly renamed British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding—formerly the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

It was announced late in the day in London on Tuesday (October 27) that Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire by historian Sujit Sivasundaram (William Collins) has been named winner of the British Academy Book Prize. Sivasundaram is professor of world history at Cambridge and was born and educated in Sri Lanka.

“The history of the empire is commonly centered around Europe and the Atlantic,” organizers of the prize write, “yet in this highly original work, Sivasundaram invites the reader to consider what this history looks like from the perspective of Indigenous peoples in the Indian and Pacific oceans, showing how they asserted their place in the Global South as the British Empire expanded.”

The announcement was made last evening with the now seemingly obligatory prize-ceremony video presentation, which we’ll embed for you below.

That well-made video, at this writing, has had 395 views. As we all hope to move past an era dominated by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it will become increasingly important for the industry’s countless and highly competitive awards organizations to evaluate whether these video productions–often not inexpensive–are reaching the level of attention desired. Of one thing we’re certain: Their high usage during the constraints of the contagion’s presence has meant the licensing of an enormous amount of twinkly-meditative piano music.

Patrick Wright

As in the past, the award carries a purse of £25,000 (US$34,291). And in this ninth year of the program, the four shortlisted selections have been characterized as dealing with “urgent and globally significant topics.”

Jury chair Patrick Wright is quoted saying about Sivasundaram’s success, “Waves Across the South is a riot of ingenuity, a truly powerful and new history of revolutions and empires, re-imagined through the environmental lens of the sea.

“The jury was spellbound by Sivasundaram’s skill in combining compelling storytelling with meticulous research.

“Even as a work of world history, it speaks directly to the politics and military interventions of today.”

Julia Black

The president of the British Academy, Julia Black, says, “This prize celebrates the role of nonfiction literature in expanding our knowledge and understanding of cultural identity and difference.

“This year’s winning book is a master class in what can be achieved through exceptional research.

“On behalf of the British Academy, it is my honor to congratulate Sujit Sivasundaram for this extraordinary work–and for shining new light on a part of the world that has been mostly overlooked in the history of empire.”

Sivasundaram’s previous release is Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony, published in 2013 by the University of Chicago Press.

And repeating for you now the 2021 shortlist:

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

Past winners of the award include:

  • Hazel V. Carby for her Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (2020)
  • 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)


More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing and book award programs is here, and more from us on the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize is here. More on the British Academy Book Prize in its renamed iteration 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 is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (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.

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