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What our finalists would most like readers to take from their books
Earlier this month we asked the finalists for The Orwell Prize for Political Writing and The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction what ‘feeling, idea or information’ they would most like readers to take away from their books. We’re delighted to share their answers, reflecting a wide range of approaches to writing politically, below.
Still to come: George Orwell had his own answers, but why do they write? And we talk to some of the finalists for The Orwell Prizes for Journalism, Exposing Britain’s Social Evils and Reporting Homelessness.
You can read an extract from all of this year’s shortlisted books via Exact Editions.
I decided to write Invasion on February 24, 2022, while sitting in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. At 4am that morning Russia began its full-scale attack on Ukraine; tanks and armoured columns were trundling insouciantly towards the capital. The mood was one of fear and dread. It seemed Kyiv would fall. I had been visiting Ukraine for 15 years, since my time as the Guardian's Moscow bureau chief. Mostly, I had written about politics: the country's influential oligarchs; Kyiv's fraught relations with Moscow; and its attempt to integrate with the west. Two hours after the invasion started, a mother came into our basement with her two small children. They were clutching colouring books. At that moment the horror of the war struck me. These children might survive but others wouldn't. The conflict - Europe's biggest since 1945 - was about to sweep away thousands of civilians. Flourishing cities like Mariupol would cease to exist. My role, as writer and reporter, was to tell the individual human stories that shaped this tragedy, and to explain how the invasion transformed global politics. The macro and the micro, in short. I vowed to keep going for as long as it took. My book, I hope, is a vivid first draft of history. If readers respond to it with compassion and empathy I've succeeded.
Luke Harding, author of Invasion (Faber)
I think that one of the most powerful things writing can do is to make us feel connected to other people, that there is less space between us, and more understanding. I hope that, depending on who is reading, one might feel either the satisfaction of witnessing something of themselves in A House for Alice, or the enrichment and empathy of having experienced the world from a perspective or location different from your own – or indeed both things at once. The novel is meant also as an artistic contribution to the collective remembering of the Grenfell fire tragedy.
Diana Evans, author of A House for Alice (Vintage)
I want people to feel motivated. I believe in collective action and people power, and I want readers to see that they have the capacity to create change. Whilst many of the topics I bring to light are difficult stories of racial disparities in healthcare, the book also spotlights individuals that are doing incredible work from medical students like Malone Mukwende who created a free handbook, Mind the Gap, on how medical conditions present on darker skin, to former museum curator Subhadra Das who helped unearth the hidden histories behind the Eugenics Collection at University College London (UCL). I deliberately ended the book with reflections on the passing of my Nana, the matriarch of my family, and my own difficulty in navigating grief. Whilst her passing is something that I am still managing, it occurred at a pivotal time for me in the final stages of writing Divided. I want people to see that even in the most adverse circumstances, individuals and communities can find a way through.
Annabel Sowemimo, author of Divided (Wellcome Collection)
I would describe Bournville, first and foremost, as being a novel about change: social and cultural change, rather than political change in a narrower sense. How do genuine, fundamental shifts in people’s attitudes come about? Can they be hastened, forced, imposed from above? By following one character, Mary Lamb (closely based on my own mother), through 75 years of British life, from VE Day to the Covid pandemic, I try to show that the most meaningful change is usually a gradual, incremental, even organic thing, which has to take place in its own way and at its own pace. The 1950s find Mary locked into attitudes on race and sexuality which are based on fear and misunderstanding. By the time of her death in 2020, her wordview has been transformed into one which is much more open and accepting; but she has barely noticed it happening, and no political party or figure has really affected the process.
Jonathan Coe, author of Bournville (Viking)
I would like readers to feel hopeful that the systems we live with now are not ones to which we have to feel resigned. Male domination is neither natural nor inevitable. Patriarchy is instead the slow product of elites in the world’s earliest states forcing families to live in narrow, prescriptive ways that served their interests. It is a long, slow grift, one that continues to this day. There’s just one illustration in my book, and it’s a map of the world’s existing matrilineal societies, in which mothers are seen as the roots of families and fathers tend to be peripheral. Each of these communities – some worshipping goddesses, others without monogamous marriage – prove that humans can rebuild society any way we want. We don’t have to feel bound by the present.
Angela Saini, author of The Patriarchs (4th Estate)
In Who Cares?, I’ve deliberately fused different modes of writing and evidence – the intimacy of first-person memoir, the solidarity of global stories, the clarity of data and social scientific findings, the jab of poetry. I’ve done this because I want readers to understand the facts of care, but to understand them in unavoidably personal and embodied terms. I felt that a book purely based on data would lead to a convenient distancing from the topic that is so often present in policy and politics about care. Likewise, solely personal stories or creative expression would be (incorrectly) reduced to the non-political. With these efforts combined, I hope that readers put down the book newly informed about care, community and the human condition, and above all that they feel that newness not as thoughts, but as a fearful and emboldening shiver of urgency.
Emily Kenway, author of Who Cares? (Headline)
Simply that the Grenfell Tower fire was a choice: it was a foreseeable disaster that was allowed to happen as a result of specific actions or omissions by specific people.
Peter Apps, author of Show Me The Bodies (Oneworld)
I aimed at moral complexity, so I hope readers come away without a clear-cut view on my characters and their actions. I wanted the novel to pose a series of questions without definite answers, or with many possible answers. What are the costs of a homophobic and sexist society? Who is hurt the most? How far do gay rights and women’s rights complement each other? What is the meaning of a marriage? Of sexual desire? What is the best way to effect social and political change? When is too early, and when is too late? Does the future belong to us, or to others unborn? How easy or possible is it to pursue individual happiness? To cross the barriers of class? What counts as bravery? As truthfulness? As sacrifice? What is a fair price to pay for progress?
Tom Crewe, author of The New Life (Vintage)
I hope that people already know that they have the right to live the full shape of their lives, to become who they are in all of their forms & genres—to be in their genders, to revel in their loves, to unfurl their own stories, to make choices for their bodies, to walk in the streets without fear. But in case all of the right-wing persecution & enforced precarity has temporarily got you down, perhaps After Sappho can be a little moment of remembering?
Selby Wynn Schwartz, author of After Sappho (Galley Beggar)
I see The Fire of the Dragon as a wake-up call – to recognise the threat posed by China under current president and communist party leader Xi Jinping, and the unique and chilling character of the challenge posed to western democracies. The party is waging a form of Cold War that is more complex, broader and more dangerous than the frozen conflict with the former Soviet Union. It is being waged on multiple fronts, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the Indian frontier, the Arctic and cyberspace. Beijing has become the master of ‘war by other means’, routinely using trade, investment and market access – even big spending tourists and students – as tools of coercion. It is underpinned by a cult of victimhood, nationalism and a vision of restoring imperial greatness – and it is intensifying.
Ian Williams, author of The Fire of the Dragon (Birlinn)
So much coverage of Qatar in the lead up to last year’s World Cup, whether by design or accident, treated the place as distant from and inferior to the West. The country’s treatment of migrant workers, its bottomless wealth, its global ambitions – these traits were packaged as something distasteful for us to tut at from afar. The distancing served to dehumanise Qatar and the people who live there – including many migrants who move there by choice because it is the best of a series of bad options. By telling their stories, I wanted Inside Qatar to reveal how the country is not an exceptional place with concerns removed from our own. On the contrary, the inequality on display, the endless accumulation, the scarcity of empathy -- it all felt the quintessence of where we, as a planet, currently stand.
John McManus, author of Inside Qatar (Icon Books)
I’m a great believer in the axiom that suffering doesn’t ennoble. There’s an expectation that survivors of great trauma should be secular saints like Primo Levi; that their humanity and compassion will be heightened. In the end if survival is your aim then you will have to make unpalatable choices. But the other truth is of course that war and persecution comes to the petty thief and the prostitute as well as the doctor and the concert pianist. I’d also like readers to think of how stories are handed down in families and what is true and if it actually matters that its true. All of us are creating our own personal mythologies day after day.
Linda Grant, author of The Story of the Forest (Virago)
Outrage, distress and a desire to act. That we should have treated people in such a way. That we have passed in silence on it. That so many in Britain would continue to do so. That we do not wish to engage honestly and openly with the darker truths of our past.
Phillipe Sands, author of The Last Colony (Orion)
It’s difficult to boil down what I would most like people to take away from Time to Think to one idea or feeling. But it might be that even with the best of intentions, good, professional people can go wrong and make mistakes; it’s how they and others respond that is important. I think the book is a tale of missed opportunities to change direction, improve care, and adapt when new information came to light. We rely on politicians, regulators and the media to scrutinise, care, and - in the case of the former – intervene, if necessary, when the need for change is apparent and vulnerable young people are involved. All were absent for too long. But I would also hope people take away that there is always a place for impartial scrutiny and robust evidence-based journalism, even if it exposes uncomfortable truths in contentious areas. Indeed, if we are not prepared to do this, why are we journalists at all?
Hannah Barnes, author of Time to Think (Swift Press)
Compassion. For Appalachians; for the unlucky, who live on the wrong side of structural poverty; for the orphans of the opioid crisis; for addicted people anywhere.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of Demon Copperhead (Faber)