Monday, May 19, 2008

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008
Organised by the Commonwealth Foundation with the support of the Macquarie Group Foundation.

Overall Commonwealth Best Book and Best First Book Winners Announced at the Franschhoek Literary Festival

Hidden histories revealed by two prize-winners
“Stories of courage, endurance, hope and the power of the individual” say judges

Lawrence Hill of Canada wins Overall Best Book for The Book of Negroes
Tahmima Anam of Bangladesh wins Overall Best First Book for A Golden Age

South African Minister of Arts and Culture Z Pallo Jordan awarded a cheque for £10,000 for The Overall Best Book Award to Canada’s Lawrence Hill for his novel, The Book of Negroes. The Overall Best First Book Award of £5,000 was awarded to Tahmima Anam of Bangladesh for A Golden Age.

As well as winning the £10,000 prize, Overall Best Book winner Lawrence Hill will travel to London for an audience with the Head of the Commonwealth, HM Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace, accompanied by Commonwealth Foundation Director, Dr Mark Collins. He will also meet with Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma at the Commonwealth’s Marlborough House headquarters, and give a public reading from his winning book at Foyles’ flagship London bookstore.

On winning the award, Lawrence Hill commented:

The Book of Negroes dramatises the all but forgotten story of 18th Century Africans forced into slavery in the Americas, liberated after many years and miraculously returned to the mother continent in the same lifetime. It was both intimidating and exhilarating to write the novel in the voice of an 18th Century African woman, Aminata. I thought of her as my own daughter and gave her the name of my eldest child, in order to love her sufficiently to lift her off the page.
“As a Canadian novelist, with the usual challenges that writers in small markets, it is thrilling to receive the Prize and the opportunity that it presents. I thank the Commonwealth Foundation and the Macquarie Group Foundation for celebrating literature and literacy so vigorously in 53 countries worldwide.”

While Tahmima Anam said about her award:
“I’m honoured and humbled to be the first ever Bangladeshi winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. I wrote A Golden Age because I wanted the story of the Bangladesh war to reach an international audience. It is a story of great tragedy, but also represents a moment of hope and possibility for my sometimes troubled country.

“I thank the Commonwealth Foundation, the judges, the supporters and the organisers of the Prize for giving me this wonderful opportunity.”

The overall winners for Best Book and Best First Book were chosen by a panel of judges from six different countries who met over two days during the final programme. Speaking on behalf of the pan-Commonwealth panel, its Chair, the Hon Justice Nicholas Hasluck, commented:

“This year’s finalists, the eight regional winners, represented strong, original voices, with great variety in style and extraordinary depth of theme.

“The winner of the best book award is Lawrence Hill for The Book of Negroes.

“Epic in scope, this is the remarkable odyssey of Aminata Diallo. Sold into slavery, wresting her freedom, she survives to tell her story of courage, endurance and hope. Compellingly narrated, this literary triumph challenges us to reexamine the history of slavery.

“The Prize for the Best First Book goes to Tahmima Anam for A Golden Age.

“This is the first major fictional account in English of the creation of Bangladesh. Housewife, widow, and mother, Rehana Haque, exemplifies the power of the individual to resist and ultimately prevail against the ravages of war. The assured and lyrical prose evokes the tumultuous birthing of a new nation in an intensely personal family narrative.”

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize final programme consisted of a week long series of public and community-orientated events in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Franschhoek, culminating in the announcement of the two overall winners. The final programme is unique in that it brings together the regional winners and judges in a different location each year. This year, for the first time, the final programme was held in South Africa in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture, South Africa, and the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

The distinguished pan-Commonwealth panel of judges was chaired by Hon Justice Nicholas Hasluck AM (Chairman of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), and comprised the four regional chairpersons and South African judge Pumla Dineo Gqola, an Associate Professor of cultural and media studies at the University of Witwatersrand. The four regional chairpersons are: Professor Arthur Gakwandi (Uganda); Dr Michael Bucknor (Jamaica); Professor Makarand Paranjape (India); and Dr Christine Prentice (New Zealand).

About the Winners
Overall Winner – The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins Publishers)

Lawrence Hill is an award winning author of several novels and works of non-fiction, including The Book of Negroes; The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq (written with Joshua Key); Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada; Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing. Lawrence was formerly a reporter with The Globe and Mail and parliamentary correspondent for The Winnipeg Free Press. His website is

The Book of Negroes was also published in the USA as Someone Knows My Name. It was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, became a number one Canadian Bestseller, was longlisted for the 2007 ScotiaBank Giller Prize, and named one of the top 100 books of the year by The Globe and Mail. Amazon in Canada selected The Book of Negroes as one of the year's best 25 works of literature and fiction, while Amazon in the USA listed Someone Knows My Name as one of the top 100 books published in 2007 in the United States.

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle — a string of slaves — Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic ‘Book of Negroes’. This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata's eventual return to Sierra Leone — passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America — is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey.

Best First Book Winner – A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam (John Murray)
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok. She comes from a family of writers: her grandfather was a famous political satirist, and her father is the editor of Bangladesh’s largest-circulating English daily newspaper. She has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College, where she studied with UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Tahmima’s writing has been published in Granta magazine, The Guardian, and The New York Times. She is a currently a contributing editor at The New Statesman.

In 2001, Tahmima began research on the Bangladesh War of Independence and started work on A Golden Age. She travelled throughout Bangladesh, interviewing ex-freedom fighters, military officers, students, and survivors of the 1971 war. The novel is a fictionalised account of these war stories, combined with her own family history. In 2005, she received a grant from The Arts Council to complete the novel.

Tahmima’s writing has been published in Granta magazine, The Guardian, and The New York Times. She is currently a contributing editor at The New Statesman.

It is spring 1971 in East Pakistan and the country is on the brink of a revolution. Rehana Haque is throwing a party for her children, Sohail and Maya, in the rose-filled garden of the house she has built, while beyond her doorstep the city is buzzing with excitement after recent elections. None of the guests at Rehana's party can foresee what will happen in the days and months that follow, and her family's life is about to change forever.


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Anonymous said...

I met Lawrence (Larry) Hill and toured with him in Canada in 1998. He's an interesting and charming person and we've kept in touch on and off. He is the son of renowned civil rights activists in Canada, and he's been an international aid worker. For a while I tried to promote Larry as an ideal festival guest in NZ; I'm just hoping someone might pick him up here now that he's won the Commonwealth Prize. He sent me a copy of 'The Book of Negroes' and it's a rivetting read.

Beattie's Book Blog said...

Thanks Fiona. I think you may be the only person in NZ to date who has read The Book of Negroes. It was published by Harper Collins Canada but I gather at this stage has not been published outside of North America.