Canada’s $75,000 Cundill Prize Winner 2023: Tania Branigan

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Journalist Tania Branigan wins the richest award in nonfiction, the Cundill History Prize, for her study of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Journalist, author, and historian Tania Branigan is named the 2023 Cundil History Prize winner in Montreal. Image: Cundill History Prize

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

‘People Were To Be Remade or Removed’
Tonight (November 8) in its home city, Montreal, the US$75,000 Cundill History Prize has been handed to Tania Branigan, the author of Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution from Faber & Faber. In the United States, the book is published by WW Norton with a different subtitle: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution.

The book, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, has also been shortlisted by the United Kingdom’s Baillie Gifford Prize, which is scheduled to announce its 2023 winner, on November 16. Should that contest go Branigan’s way, as well, she’ll be among the most richly rewarded competition winners of the year, the Baillie Gifford carrying a purse of £50,000 (US$61,400).

Not without irony, the news of Branigan’s win arrives on a day, when “panda diplomacy” between China and the West has essentially collapsed. The three crowd-pleasing giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji have been recalled by Beijing early and are on their way aboard FedEx’s “Panda Express” plane, a Boeing 777F, from Washington’s Smithsonian National Zoo to Chengdu. Ashraf Khalil, writing for the Associated Press, points out that in “50 years of panda exchanges between China and the National Zoo, giant pandas have been removed from the list of endangered species.”

The UK cover, Faber & Faber

As Khalil goes on to note, Beijing is “gradually withdrawing its giant pandas from zoos in America and Europe amid diplomatic tensions with a number of Western governments.”

So for some, tonight’s news of the Cundill jury’s selection of Branigan’s Red Memory may carry a touch of emotion for pandas and the chill of uncertain relations with the Asian powerhouse.

The London-based Branigan’s chops as a seven-year China correspondent for The Guardian clearly have impressed the Cundill jury, which comprises chair Philippa Levine and historians Marie Favereau, Eve M. Troutt Powell, Sol Serrano, Coll Thrush, and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.

Branigan’s book’s focus is on China’s Mao-fanatic Cultural Revolution, which between 1966 and 1976 was so brutal, so intolerant, and so deeply an exercise in mistrust of one’s fellows that, as she writes in her book, “The violence and hatred terrorized the nation, annihilated much of its culture, and killed key leaders and thinkers.”

The US cover, WW Norton

As she writes, “The movement was an emperor’s ruthless assertion of power, which Mao directed and set in motion to destroy his opposition within the [Communist] Party.

“But it was also an ideological crusade—a drive to reshape China’s hearts and souls as he had transformed its politics and economy. People were to be remade or removed. … The frenzy of the movement obliterated temples and relics and closed schools and universities. It tore apart families and friendships.”

It’s interesting to  note that the 2019 winner of the Cundill was Julia Lovell for her book, Maoism: A Global History. Now, parts of Mao Zedong’s extraordinary impact on modern China into a special class among Cundill-winning themes, now with two wins probing elements of the story.

Many of our readers hope that the Cundill team will report on the sales impact the announcement of its winner has, some weeks from now, once the book’s publishers can assess how sales have gone in the wake if this signal award attention.

Levine: ‘The Lives and Psyches of a Generation’

In a statement of rationale for the jury, Levine said in part, “Tania Branigan’s sensitive study of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the lives and psyches of an entire generation in China affected every juror, as it will every reader.

Philippa Levine

“All of us found ourselves unable to stop thinking about this extraordinary book. All of us were deeply moved by the trauma she so vividly describes and by the skills on which she drew in doing so.”

The Cundill program, seated at Montreal’s McGill University, is one of a handful of world-class major awards in nonfiction, joined in that elite group by the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction; the renamed $25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding (formerly the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize); the UK’s £50,000 Wolfson History Prize; and the €25,000 German Nonfiction Prize.

Additionally, Cassava Republic has recently announced a $30,000 nonfiction prize for Black women. And England’s Women’s Prize for Fiction recently named a jury for its first iteration of a new nonfiction prize, which carries a £30,000 purse, a gift of the Charlotte Aitken Trust.

Cundill History Prize 2023 Finalists

An event this week at the Cundill History Prize Festival in Montreal, here with author Vladislav Zubok (‘Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union’) in conversation with Kristy Ironside. Image: Ned Green, FMcM

Author Title Publisher / Imprint
Tania Branigan

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution

Faber & Faber
Kate Cooper Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine’s Confessions Hachette / Basic Books
James Morton Turner

Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future

University of Washington Press

Previous winners of the award are:

  • Tiya Miles (2022)
  • Marjoleine Kars (2021)
  • Camilla Townsend (2020)
  • Julia Lovell (2019)
  • Maya Jasanoff (2018)
  • Daniel Beer (2017)
  • Thomas W. Laqueur (2016)
  • Susan Pedersen (2015)
  • Gary Bass (2014)
  • Anne Applebaum (2013)
  • Stephen Platt (2012)
  • Sergio Luzzatto (2011)
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010)
  • Lisa Jardine (2009)
  • Stuart B. Schwartz (2008)

Peter Cundill

The Cundill History Prize was founded by Peter Cundill (1938-2011), who 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.

Lisa Shapiro, McGill’s dean of the faculty of art, said that this year, “has been a tremendous year for the Cundill History Prize. The jurors managed to arrive at an exceptional longlist of 14 titles, but they still had their work cut out for them to arrive at a shortlist.

“The eight short-listed titles were announced at a wonderful event in New York City–the first time the Prize had visited the United States since 2019.

Lisa Shapiro

“And from those eight titles, the jurors chose three superb finalists, each speaking to distinct dimensions of today’s world.

“Tania Branigan’s winning book truly embodies the Cundill History Prize’s aims: it is not only an outstanding achievement in historical scholarship, it also engages the reader and demonstrates the real importance of history writing for understanding our world

It’s interesting to note that from an eight-title shortlist which included four books from major trade  houses, the three finalists were published by one iconic independent house, Faber & Faber; one major commercial publisher, Hachette’s Basic Books; and one university press, the University of Washington Press.

The Cundill History Prize 2023 winner with the program’s jury. From left are Marie Favereau; Eve M. Troutt Powell; Coll Thrush; author Tania Branigan; Philippa Levine; Adam Gopnik; and Sol Serrano. Image: Cundill History Prize


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. More on the international industry’s publishing and book awards is here, more on the Canadian book market is here, and more on nonfiction 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.com, 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.

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