Interview: the five authors shortlisted for the 2020 Al-Rodhan Prize

22 Sep 2020

Each year, our Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding recognises non-fiction books that contribute to public understanding of world cultures. In 2020, the five shortlisted authors explore the legacies of empire, challenge popular misconceptions and question ideas of normality and belonging.

Tanya Talaga

All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism

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I wanted to revisit the issue of why children in our communities are taking their lives in such record numbers.
I had been a reporter at the Toronto Star for a number of years, so I covered the issue of youth suicide in our communities. It always bothered me how news organisations looked at the amount of deaths among our children. We became numbers. No-one really looked at why it was that our kids were dying at their own hands.

I knew there were a lot of reasons for this and it’s very complicated, but it essentially boils down to: children don’t ask for the circumstances which they’re born into. Children don’t ask to be born into communities with no clean running water, no access to high schools, no doctors, to be taken away from their parents by government authorities or children’s aid societies. All of these outside factors and this weight of history are on many of our kids and it is not an easy burden.

Every First Nations person living in Canada has a tie to residential schools.
There’s somebody in their family, in their circle, that went to the schools. That leaves an impact on you, on your family and for generations to come. 150,000 children were taken away from their families, their languages and their communities. They were told they were dirty and worthless and needed to learn how to become good British subjects. They were to forget everything that they knew, to forget their names, have their hair cut, all of their possessions taken away. Imagine being a child of four or five, having your clothes and toys taken away. Imagine losing your child and not seeing that child again for 12 or 14 years, and when that child returns to you, they don’t know who they are, they can’t speak their language, they don’t recognise their own mother – if you’re lucky, to have your child come back to you. The estimates are at least 5,000 children died in these schools and many of them, we don’t know who they are. They’re in nameless graves. Similar boarding school systems happened in America and in Australia. You can point to all of the similarities and you can also see the basis of the removal of language and children, that leads to high suicide rates amongst our youth.

We are making changes, but we are nowhere near to where we need to be.
We have 61 First Nations communities in Canada without access to clean water. Without access you can’t have health clinics, you can’t have high schools, so a lot of our children are still leaving their homes in Grade 9, away from their families, their communities and their language, to move 400, 500km away by themselves just to get a high school education, which is the right of every other child in this country. We have a long way to go still. We are from communities that are often not heard or listened to. Our true history has not been taught or learned. This is a commonality about Indigenous Peoples all over the world. Our similarities bind us together, so much more so than our differences. So I’m grateful for the nomination for that reason in particular, because I hope All Our Relations adds to the conversation.


Charles King

The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture

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So much of how we understand the early history of anthropology in the US can be traced to how much interaction a given individual had with Margaret Mead.
The more interaction, the more likely it is that she collected anything – letters, papers, field notes – having to do with them. She hoovered up everything that came into her orbit, which is why it’s so easy, with Ruth Benedict or Edward Sapir, to trace their lives. With a person like Ella Cara Deloria or Zora Neale Hurston, it’s much harder. At a time of segregated scholarship or when the contributions of people who happened to be from ethnic or racial minorities were simply not appreciated, even tracing their lives can be a really tough thing. I had to supplement what I was able to do in the Mead archives, housed at the Library of Congress, and Boas papers, located in Philadelphia, with a kind of ‘real-world’ research, such as visiting Hurston's hometown in Florida. I wanted to humanise Franz Boas and show him as a struggling younger academic, who had the germ of a big idea in his head but couldn’t find a job, was embarrassed about his level of English and then later on, had a debilitating facial malformation after botched surgery and experienced great family tragedy. He was struggling at this personal level at the same time as he was struggling professionally for an idea that at the time seemed absolutely batty: that a so-called primitive society, in North America or halfway round the world, had anything at all to teach modern, progressive, world-conquering societies, in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.

Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and the others were fighting some of the great moral and scientific battles of their day.
They were struggling for what we would now recognise to be good science and good behaviour in their day. If we take what Boas has to say in its purest way, it still challenges us to this day. Because in anthropology, or even in what we consider to be a worldly, open-minded outlook, it is now easy to imagine a world in which you take the wisdom of an indigenous healer seriously, in which a hunter-gatherer society has profound, important and correct things to say about the relationship between humans and the environment, in which you look at a society that has carved out a perfectly reasonable place for what we might now call a trans or gender-nonbinary individual and see lessons for our own society. It’s written into the progressive mindset that it’s easy to go around the world collecting examples of better ways of living from societies that look very different from our own.

What’s harder to do is to look at, for example, the nationalists in one’s own society and investigate how they come to those ideas, or what a specific individual means to be signaling when they put on a MAGA hat, or to study class divides with the seriousness we might examine religious or ethnic ones. Boas and his students were doing the hard work of their own time. If we really want to take Boas seriously, it means being brave enough to be uncomfortable, in the way that they were: by straining to understand very different social norms and ways of seeing reality, ways of seeing the world, wherever they happen to be and in whatever form they might take, around the globe or down the street.

So many of the challenges that the US in particular faces, and plenty of other countries too, have echoes of earlier eras.
How do we think about the natural divisions of society? How much do we think of our way of seeing the world as carved in stone, or rooted in nature or obviousness? How do we learn to shift our sense of the normal in order to create an ever-more capacious vision of what humanity is? Those were the big questions that these scientists were dealing with in the teens, 20s and 30s of the last century and they seem incredibly relevant now.


Priyamvada Gopal

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

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I’ve had a lifelong interest in dissent.
I knew I wanted to write something about the British Empire, but I didn’t want to just write a denunciation of defences of Empire – that’s something that would’ve generated more heat than light. I realised that there wasn’t a single book that looked at British criticism of Empire over a fairly long historical period. I had also been thinking about the idea of freedom, how it’s bandied around a lot as a word. We all love “freedom”, but we don’t often use it with a great sense of knowing what it means. I was very aware that freedom was often presented as a western idea, something that went outwards from Europe into the rest of the world. I knew instinctively that this was incorrect, in that all cultures have some understanding of what they see as being the conditions and goals of freedom. I started to look at the relationship between British ideas of freedom in the colonial context and colonial ideas of freedom from the Empire. The project of criticism of Empire from within Britain, and the project of understanding different conceptions of freedom and how they engage with each other, were brought together in this book.

Neither slavery nor colonialism went unchallenged in their time.
As a teacher, many students arriving in my class haven’t been told very much about the Empire and they certainly haven’t been told about British critics of Empire. Whenever they used “we” in the classroom, they by default had to assume that the “we” was Imperialist, white and upper-class. I would often stop my students and ask, when you say, “we did” certain things, who is the “we”? I wanted them to be able to complicate the “we”, because why would you only affiliate to the Rule Brittania story of Empire when your history also includes great dissidents? Why are they not part of the heritage that you have inherited? That then connects to the whole question of thinking it’s only woke young people who today are questioning the Empire, because they are using today’s standards – that, we know to be untrue. The ‘we’ of Britain is rather more complicated than we assume that it is. This also means that there is a selection of stories that people can choose to identify with. They might identify with Rudyard Kipling, but they could also choose, in their affinities and thought processes, to link up to Frederick Harrison, William Blunt, or George Padmore. And I wanted to give them that option.

I do think history is in danger of being taught as mythology.
It is certainly mythologised in the public sphere. I think that, in some sense, historians across the political spectrum might be inclined to agree that we do need a historical understanding of what took place. I slightly worry that there is very little evidence that our teaching of history is going in the direction that would take us towards history, away from mythology. I would be keen to see a more complicated understanding of how Empire shaped us. There’s a tendency in Britain sometimes very selectively to say, well, we weren’t there then, so why should we take any responsibility? The point is, you are absolutely shaped by that moment, wherever you come from. Empire has to give us the complicated backstory to how each of us came to be.


Hazel Carby

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

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Imperial Intimacies reveals how the global reaches into and shapes our daily existences and most intimate experiences.
I grew up in south London, the daughter of a Jamaican father who was an ex-airman and a Welsh mother. I began writing a book about questions of race, gender and sexuality in post-World War II UK, then realised that I was falling into what I think of as the ‘Windrush trap’: that there were no black people in Britain before the Empire Windrush landed. As I wrote about attempts to stop black military personnel from fraternizing with white women during World War II, I wanted to understand the history of how people came to understand themselves as colonial or imperial subjects, as British people who were black or white. This meant telling a transatlantic story with an historical arc of more than 300 years which also dwelt on tangible details about people’s lives; that revealed how relations of power at an international level, reached into the everyday lives of ordinary people shaping who they thought they were and the possibilities and impossibilities of their future.

I had to supplement history and archival research with memory.
My father grew up in Kingston with his grandmother and told me that every summer they journeyed to the north side of the island, to Swift River, a town where everybody was called Carby. As a child, I made no distinction between this story and the many other storybooks I devoured; it only gained significance when I was in the National Archives at Kew. My father’s memories of Portland led me to find the register of the enslaved for that part of the island. Even though I was a professor who was very familiar with the history of enslavement, it was a shock to see the list of people who were enslaved on the Carby plantation – we will never know their African names. I traced the descendants of as many of them as I could and found connections to my father. But I was also intrigued by the ‘Lilly Carby’ who was listed as the owner. That journey took me back to the tiny village of Coleby, Lincolnshire. Lilly wasn’t the son of an aristocrat so this wasn’t the conventional story of enslavement under the Jamaican sugar barons. It was a challenge to figure out how, in the late 18th century, he made his way from being the son of a carpenter in Coleby, to a slaveholder in Jamaica. The answer was war – Lilly was an infantry soldier in the British Army who was shipped to Jamaica and subsequently deserted. His journey across the Atlantic paralleled my father’s journey in the opposite direction 250 years later. At each moment, my sense of wanting to be able to tell a story about ordinary people was confirmed.

I’d like people to consider how intimate some of the relations were between those in metropolitan Britain and those in the colonies.
Poverty and poor health haunted the lives of my maternal and paternal ancestors but why, in the early 20th century would a woman who died of TB in Bristol workhouse believe that because she was white, she was superior to a black woman who died of TB in Kingston? At the end of the book I pose a question: Lilly Carby had parents in a tiny Lincolnshire who had black grandchildren in Jamaica. English names are very common throughout the Caribbean but migrants to the UK were not greeted as family – they were distinguished as “strangers”, or “black”, or “immigrants”. I hope Imperial Intimacies encourages readers to reimagine their and their ancestors’ relation to colonial and imperial history in more immediate and intimate ways, rather than as a distant and irrelevant history.


Pekka Hämäläinen

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power

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The Lakotas are essential to understanding American history and American self-understanding.
The late 19th-century Indian Wars, especially Custer’s Last Stand in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1776 and the Massacre of the Wounded Knee in 1890, have become moral touchstones in the American mind. They force us to question the human costs of Empire and the place and rights of Indigenous peoples in North America, whose oppression and marginalisation continues today. 

Custer’s Last Stand fixed the Lakotas in historical memory, both elevating and diminishing them as historical actors. Most studies trace the build-up to Little Bighorn and discard centuries of Lakota history, fixating on a single moment. I wanted to tell the full story of the Lakota nation and take a long look back to understand their history. There are hundreds of studies of the United States, but very few attempts to tell the full history of the Lakotas. I set out to trace the earlier history, which is crucial to understanding the Lakota people and the eventual Lakota dominance that reached its symbolic culmination in 1776.

I could not have written Lakota America without an extraordinary Indigenous archive: the Lakota winter counts, or waníetu iyáwapi. Drawn on buffalo hides, cloth, muslin and paper, winter counts are pictorial calendars that mark each year with one specific event. The winter counts are very Lakota-specific. Often they record wars, encounters with others and diseases and death, but they also record daily experiences, something that was funny or just weird. The winter counts allow us to see Lakotas as fully-fledged people on their own terms.

The meeting of Native Americans and European colonists was probably one of the most dramatic encounters in all history.
The European invasion of the Americas in the 16th century was one of the most significant and dramatic events in all history. The two sets of humanity were separated by millennia of distinct cultural evolution, leaving an enormous mental crevasse between them. Everything was different – values, societies, lifestyles, religion. That crevasse was almost immediately filled with violence, spawning a history that has been defined by five centuries of struggle, violence and racism. This horribly prolonged conflict has come to define our understanding of American history. It is vital to try to understand why people did what they did. Simply demonising the colonists does not help; we have to take their motives, ambitions, fears and ideas seriously too, in order to understand this difficult history that is still unfolding.

The challenge to a historian is to show that nothing is inevitable.
Because we know that Native peoples were eventually dispossessed, confined to reservations and exploited, we have tended to read that history back into the past. My ambition was to show that it didn’t need to be this way, that there were other options. Lakota history is not just struggle and defeat and suffering; there was a much richer and much more complicated history behind the shadow of Little Bighorn. The older master narratives recede in the background and you see a very different kind of North America when you look at things from a Native perspective. 


Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding winner's announcement

On 27 October at 6pm, join our celebration of some of the best non-fiction books published in the last year as Jury Chair Professor Patrick Wright FBA announces the winner of the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding live on YouTube.

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