College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Tales of real and imagined lives win book awards

A vivid tale set in a fictional town in northern Australia, an exploration into the work of a writer who took their own life, and a snapshot of a post-Second World War culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll have won the UK’s longest-running literary awards.

Authors Alexis Wright, Iman Mersal, Ian Penman, and translator Robin Moger

The trio of captivating books are the fiction winner and two joint biography winners of this year’s James Tait Black Prizes.

Authors Alexis Wright, Iman Mersal, Ian Penman, and translator Robin Moger join the stellar line-up of winners of the awards, which have been presented by the University  since 1919.

Prize firsts

It is the first time that the biography prize has been jointly awarded, and the first time a writer and translator have been awarded a prize together in the history of the awards. The prizes were opened to translations in 2021, with author and translator to be honoured equally.

The prizes are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students.

Alexis Wright’s winning fiction book, Praiseworthy, published by And Other Stories, is a 700-page novel exploring the climate crisis and how it affects the fictional town of Praiseworthy in northern Australia.

Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation in Australia, is one of the country’s most acclaimed writers. The author has written several award-winning fiction and nonfiction books, and Praiseworthy is her fourth novel.

A Kaleidoscopic novel

Fiction Judge Dr Benjamin Bateman, of the University of Edinburgh, called Praiseworthy “a kaleidoscopic and brilliantly conceived novel that interweaves matters of climate and Indigenous justice in prose that accomplishes the most difficult of feats – being funny and simultaneously ferociously engaged with some of the most pressing ethical and political questions of our contemporary moment.”

I am really pleased that the judges on the fiction panel have acknowledged the innovative nature of Praiseworthy, and appreciated the scope of my intentions with this work.  In this work, I wanted to capture the spirit of our times at home and across the world.  I intended Praiseworthy to be a big book in more ways than one.  I hope its scale and scope is right for the times we live in.

Alexis WrightFiction Winner

The biography prize has been awarded jointly for Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, translated by Robin Moger, published by And Other Stories, and Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Traces of Enayat illuminates the life story of author Enayat al-Zayyat, whose only novel, Love and Silence was published posthumously following her suicide in her early 20s.

First published in Arabic in 2019, Traces of Enayat is a memoir of Mersal's journey through a changing Cairo as she traces her subject’s moving life story.

Egypt-born Iman Mersal, who lives in Canada, is a poet, writer, academic and translator, who has published several works covering topics such as motherhood and parent-child relationships.

Robin Moger is an award-winning translator of Arabic literature to English, who has translated several novels and prose works.

Biography Judge Dr Simon Cooke, of the University of Edinburgh, called Traces of Enayat  “an absorbing work of recovery and appreciation: formally inventive and reflective in its fusion of biographical approaches into a form all its own, beautifully attentive to the elusive, and deeply moving in its evocation of Enayat al-Zayyat’s life. It vividly opens up the cultural world of Cairo – and Enayat’s relation to it – in a translation of great tonal and narrative integrity, even as the book traverses different forms and registers.

It is a great honour to see Traces of Enayat added to the distinguished list of biographies that have received The James Tait Black Prize. I'm especially pleased at this recognition of a work written originally in Arabic, and am deeply grateful to the James Tait Black committee for valuing the art of translation. I share this award with Robin Moger, whose devotion to Arabic literature has made so many wonderful and important books accessible to readers everywhere. My gratitude also goes to our English publisher, And Other Stories, as well as to my Arabic publisher, Al Kotob Khan, for their unwavering support.

Iman MersalJoint biography winner

I am delighted that Iman Mersal’s extraordinary book has been awarded the James Tait Black prize for biography, and especially so that it is the first translation to have done so since the rules were changed to actively solicit them. It is wonderful to think that the judges were able to feel at least some of what I did when I first read it, and I am grateful to them for recognising its many achievements. Many thanks to And Other Stories for producing a beautiful book but most of all to Iman, who let me, and helped me, translate it; her work is always a joy for me.

Robin Moger  Translator, Joint biography winner 

Ian Penman’s winning book is an insight into the post-Second World War culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll through the eyes of West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

It presents a portrait of the artist, who created more than 40 films and is regarded one of the major figures of the New German Cinema movement.

Ian Penman is a British writer, music journalist and critic. He is the author of three books and contributes to a range of magazines and publications including the London Review of Books.

Biography Judge Dr Simon Cooke said the panel found Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors to be “an extraordinary, signal achievement in the art of life-writing: poetically luminous at every turn, fascinating and agile in form, and hauntingly moving as a portrait – of Fassbinder, vividly brought to life on the page in all his complexity of the wider culture. A time-bound meditation in fragments, it also has a deep, powerfully affecting tonal integrity and pathos.”

It's an honour to share the James Tait Black Prize, and to find myself on a roster, however distantly, with my heroine Muriel Spark! It's so rewarding to discover that Fassbinder's singular life and vision, that had such a profound impact on me, have connected with readers of today.

Ian PenmanJoint Biography winner

Alexis Wright’s novel topped a fiction shortlist for the £10,000 prize that featured Lori and Joe by Amy Arnold (Prototype Publishing); Open Throat by Henry Hoke (Macmillan Publishers), and Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan (Granta Books).

The shortlist for the £10,000 biography prizes featured This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe (Daunt Books Publishing); Always Reaching: The Selected Writings of Anne Truitt by Anne Truitt (Yale University Press); and Lifescapes by Anne Wroe (Penguin). 

Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy stood out to our student readers for pushing the novel form in new directions and for depicting, with impeccable nuance and humour, the moral complexity of trying to make a life under conditions of governmental dispossession and slow violence.

Dr Benjamin BatemanFiction Judge

It was fascinating and exhilarating to discuss this year’s shortlist with a dedicated and brilliant panel of doctoral researchers. Encompassing notes, interviews, obituaries, crónicas, quests, this kaleidoscopic gathering of formally daring work encouraged us to think through the reach and range of the forms of life-writing. Acutely reflective in their inquiries into the stakes of writing lives, these are works as animated by an urgent attentiveness to the textures of loss as by a moving sense of gesture towards the lives evoked in their pages.

Dr Simon CookeBiography Judge

The James Tait Black Prizes are awarded by the University of Edinburgh’s English Literature department, which is the oldest in the world.

The Prizes recognise the best works of fiction and biography during the previous 12 months.

The academic integrity of the judging process is a hallmark of the literary awards. Each year the academic judge in each category works with a panel of doctoral researchers to critically assess the shortlisted works and decide on the winner.

A James Tait Black Visiting Writers Programme series was launched last year, featuring visits to the University from previously shortlisted and winning authors. Frances Wilson and Amit Chaudhuri gave public interviews and masterclasses for students in 2023, while George Szirtes, who won the Biography Prize in 2020 for The Photographer at Sixteen, will give a student masterclass and speak at the University to tie in with the announcement of this year’s awards.

The James Tait Black Prizes began celebrating books in the early 20th century after Janet Tait Black, née Coats – part of the renowned threadmaking family J & P Coats – made provision in her will for the creation of two book prizes, to be awarded annually in memory of her husband, James Tait Black.

Since the prizes’ inception 105 years ago, the list of winners forms a who’s who of literary distinction, with Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Zadie Smith among the winners.

Equally stellar names appear on the list of biography winners, including Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Quentin Bell, John Buchan, Richard Ellmann, Hermione Lee and Lytton Strachey.

In the past decade Amit Chaudhuri, Craig Brown, Lucy Ellmann, and Zia Haider Rahman have joined the illustrious list.

The University also offers a free online course to give readers the chance to engage with judges and other readers about the shortlisted fiction books as well as classics of English and Scottish fiction.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – called ‘How to Read a Novel' – draws on the James Tait Black fiction shortlist and has attracted more than 60,000 participants from across the globe since it launched in 2017.

Related links

The James Tait Black Prizes

(Image credits on Montage -Alexis Wright – credit Vincent Long, Iman Mersal – credit Lesung & Gazett)