The judges have debated and the shortlist has been announced for the 2021 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award, a highly prestigious annual literary award of £20,000 for a current writing project exploring the Americas. And what a list. Featuring writers from across the globe, the six-strong list showcases world-class storytelling in both English and Spanish.
These writers will explore our Americas collections to research their writing projects, with the two winners granted a year-long residency and unique access to the expertise of our curatorial staff.
But what are their projects, and why are our Americas collections perfectly placed to inform them?
“Because of its eclecticism and richness, the British Library is a bibliographic treasure trove for this project”:
Andrés Barba is shortlisted for his non-fiction project Ruinas Vivas de América (Living Ruins of America), a literary and philosophical exploration of the concept of ruins – archaeological, historical and natural – across the American continent.
Andrés is the first of two shortlisted writers poised to use our Bauzá Maps Collection, in his case to view the ruins that form the roots of local identity such as Machu Picchu, Chichén Itza and Teotihuacán. He will then dig into our Oral History collections, including the Oral Histories of Wars and Conflicts, and the Television and Radio News Collection, to reveal the impact of natural disasters on already ruined cities like Detroit, Chaco Canyon, Santa Clara or Bodie. Andrés’ use of Oral History will continue as he researches the Oral History of Architecture, the Twentieth Century Society Recordings of Architects, the Ove Arup interviews and the Andrew Saint Architecture Recordings to then discover how these natural disasters inspired America to construct and create.
The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, México, photograph by Ricardo David Sánchez (2007), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Doreen Cunningham, our next shortlistee, is selected for her memoir about learning from whales how to be a mother in a world in the grip of climate crisis. Her project explores the effects of climate change on oceans, and climate justice for Indigenous peoples. Having lived with Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic in 2006, Doreen will draw on her enduring relationship with an Iñupiat family as she researches US Government policies towards Native Americans in our collections, and considers the impact that waves of contact with colonising European agricultural culture and climate change have on the Iñupiat, including social devastation caused by cultural loss.
Illustration from 'Alaska’ by Miner W. Bruce [shelfmark: 10460.dd.17]
She will use texts such as John Bockstoce’s Whales, Ice and Men and “I am sorry now we were so very severe”, an exploration of a 1930s ‘Eskimo Residential School’ by Val Marie Johnson, to research the social impact of this cultural change, including the introduction of alcohol, residential schools and oil exploration in the Arctic.1 And she’ll use the unexpected; our collection includes comprehensive documents on gray whale census data and marine monitoring, Charles Scammon’s whaling logs, and even whalesong recordings - some of which Doreen has already consulted to start things off.
Our next shortlisted project, Pie de Guerra (War Footing), will be written by Chilean writer and scholar Lina Meruane, and will expose the mutilation suffered by the Chilean veterans of the Pacific War. The novel will consider the double mutilation suffered by these veterans; the dismemberment of their bodies and the suppression of their voices. Having been inspired to write this story after discovering photographs of 33 soldier-miners in Colección de Fotografía Patrimonial in Chile’s National Historic Museum, Lina will consult our collections to bring their stories to life.
She will use the stories, letters and testimonials written by these soldiers, their families and other chroniclers, that can be found in our collection. The history of medical photography and medical history will allow Lina to trace the kinds of wounds produced by the armaments available and the medical procedures used to treat casualties. Collection material on weaponry, arsenals, uniforms, flags, and other war artefacts will paint a picture, while the study of the language employed both during and after this confrontation will help write the words.
Pola Oloixarac is next, selected for Atlas Literario del Amazonas (Literary Atlas of the Amazon), a work of creative non-fiction revealing the secret history of the Amazon as a region of the world and the people, ideas and stories within it that have remained unexplored.
Pola’s project aims to link imagination with bibliographic and historical research, and she will work with our Latin American collections to focus on documents relating to the European Conquest, indigenous languages and the stories of travellers who crossed the Amazon in different eras.
Map of Brazil from the Klencke Atlas, c. 1660 (Shelfmark: Maps KAR)
Pola will be the second shortlisted writer this year to use the Bauzá map collections, and she will also study the accounts of British travellers to the Amazon, from Spruce and von Martius to Darwin, from Agassiz to Florence.
JS Tennant is selected for Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba, a playful history of Cuba’s relationship with the United States and other superpowers, contextualising the island within a web of power relations to show how it has long been miscast as an imagined or fantastical space as much as a real one.
To write this project JS will first explore the güije (a troll-like being) in the ethnological writings of Nancy Morejón and Fernando Ortíz. He’ll call on the guidance of our curators to research the mappaemundi Columbus had access to ahead of his venture into Terra Incognita, the so-called portolan charts (we hold one from 1350) which showed the presence in the Atlantic of imagined islands such as Legname, Corvi Marini, San Zorzi, St Brendan’s Isles, Brazil and Antilla.
Parra, Antonio, of Havana, Descripcion de diferentes piezas de historia natural, las mas del ramo maritimo, representadas en setenta y cinco laminas. (Havana, 1787), p.19 (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 955.h.20.)
He also plans to base a section of Mrs Gargantua around the first book printed in Cuba, Antonio Parra y Callado’s Descripción de diferentes piezas de Historia Natural (1787).2 We hold a rare copy of this book, colloquially known as the ‘Book of the Fishes’ for its exquisite hand-coloured paintings.
Our final shortlisted project is Empire Without End: A New History of Britain and the Caribbean, to be written by Imaobong Umoren. An expansive new history of the 400 year relationship between Britain and the Caribbean, Imaobong’s book will argue that the Caribbean was the birth-place of a racial caste system that shaped both nations and continues to be influential today.
‘What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us’ by Benjamin Zephaniah (shelfmark: Dep 10936)
Imaobong will draw on a wealth of material here at the Library for this project, including collections such as the Wasafiri Magazine Archive, Benjamin Zephaniah’s manuscript poem 'What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us' and the letters of Ignatius Sancho. The project will also call on our Caribbean newspapers collection, including the Daily Gleaner and Dominica Chronicle and will explore the Endangered Archives Programme for Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Turks and Caicos.
Only two writers will win the £20,000 prize, but we’re pleased to also grant all the shortlisted writers £2000 towards work on their proposed project here at the Library. And we’ve already begun. Following the shortlist announcement in October we’ve been sharing our expertise and helping the writers get started. With researchers currently facing unprecedented challenges we’ll be working with this year’s shortlist to help them research effectively using digital resources, research assistants and curatorial support, wherever they are.
The two winners of the 2021 Writer’s Award will be announced on 25 November.
1. Bockstoce, John, Whales, Ice and Men (Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, c1986) (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection LB.31.b.2973); Johnson, Val Marie, “I'm sorry now we were so very severe”: 1930s Colonizing Care Relations between White Anglican Women Staff and Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, and Iñupiat People in an “Eskimo Residential School”, Feminist studies: FS, Volume 45: Number 2/3 (2019); pp 335-371 (Shelfmark: 3905.197800)
2. Parra, Antonio, of Havana, Descripcion de diferentes piezas de historia natural, las mas del ramo maritimo, representadas en setenta y cinco laminas. (Havana, 1787) (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 955.h.20.)