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Biography shortlist

Biography judge Dr Simon Cooke discusses the 2020 shortlist for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography.

Biography judge

Dr Simon Cooke is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, at the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, The University of Edinburgh.

Staff profile

Carolyn Forche, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance 

JTB Carolyn Forche

This luminous, urgent memoir by the North American poet, translator, and human rights activist Carolyn Forché has been 15 years in the writing, and much anticipated. The title is a quotation of the first line from ‘The Colonel’, a poem from Forché’s second collection, The Country Between Us, published in 1981 as the poet’s testimony to what she had seen of the war and the build-up to war in El Salvador over the course of several visits to the country in the late 1970s. It became a (rare) poetry bestseller, and Forché has since become a pre-eminent ‘poet of witness’ (a term she coined for the landmark anthology she edited, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993)). In her memoir, Forché tells the story behind this – but it is a deeply humble, humane and conscientious account of a poetic calling that is inextricable from a political awakening. It’s an engrossing portrait, firstly, of the charismatic, enigmatic and utterly dedicated stranger who literally called on her when she was a 27-year-old teaching in the States, to enlist her to travel to El Salvador because he wanted (of all things) a poet to tell the people of North America of the war that was approaching, and that he was trying to prevent: Leonel Gómez Vides acts as the mentor who stood Forché ‘squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes’. In its humility, its depth of attentiveness to the experience of those encountered, and its conscientiously measured tone, the book is devastating in its portrayal of human suffering without being in any way appropriative and sensationalist. And the form as well as the voice is crucial here: it is striking that much of the book is substantially composed of extensive dialogue, as if verbatim but surely involving elements of fiction as well as memory and notes; these appear alongside accounts of conversations that were reportedly recorded but without reproducing the dialogue, as well as extracts from notes ‘written in pencil’ at the time, and captionless, unattributed photographs. It compels us to open our eyes to the world described, and subtly draws attention to the ways in which different kinds of language shape our encounter with the world.

 Sinead Gleeson, Constellations: Reflections from Life 

JTB Sinead Gleeson

This is a dazzling debut from a writer who has done much to celebrate and promote the writings of others as a reviewer and broadcaster (she is a presenter of The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1) and editor (of collections of Irish women’s writing such as The Long Gaze Back, and The Glass Shore). That attentiveness to the work of others enriches these pages: acutely insightful appreciations of other writers and artists are folded deftly into Gleeson’s wide-ranging ‘reflections from life’, and Gleeson has a refreshingly generous cast of mind in her cultural hinterland, taking in the visual arts, diverse forms of music, cultural criticism, alongside literary writings. The essays gravitate around the theme of the body: of the experience of illness and encounters with the medical world, of pregnancy and motherhood, of love affairs and losses. But while Constellations is an important contribution to the burgeoning field of writings on illness and the body, it is so, in part, precisely through being about so much else. If books on illness or grief can sometimes seem to cordon off precisely those taboos they bring into the open by being too generically clear-cut as ‘sick lit’ or ‘misery memoirs’, the ‘constellatory’ form of this book is crucial to the way the book looks at illness and the life of the body as integral to life as a whole. It is acute in both its attention to the kinds of language we use to speak of the body, and the politics of the body – particularly but not exclusively regarding women, and especially but not only in Ireland. While some of the essays and poems might certainly stand alone – and such a powerful ‘story’ as ‘Our Mutual Friend’, for example, asks us to pause before moving on – this is no patched together compilation, but a work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, with each chapter sparking off resonances with the others in an artful composition, developing a cumulative power. 

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

JTB Saidiya Hartman

What is so striking about this startlingly original and moving portrait of the lives of black women in the early twentieth-century ghettos of New York and Philadelphia is its fusion of painstaking, rigorous research with explicitly, provocatively daring leaps of imagination. Hartman seeks the traces of her subjects’ lives assiduously in a wide range of archival sources – slum photographs, trial transcripts, social worker reports, prison case files – all of which, as she notes, ‘represent them as a problem’. Reading against the grain of such documents, Hartman conceives of the young black women – so often pathologized and criminalized in the Jim Crow era – as sexual modernists before the flappers, social revolutionaries before Gatsby, ‘radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live’. Much of the book is written in a richly speculative mode: we are granted access into the imagined interior lives of each of Hartman’s subjects, which might prompt some to ask where the line is between what Hartman has called ‘critical fabulation’ and fiction that draws on factual sources. Hartman’s persistent and innovative incorporation of her sources into the fibre of the book (such as the ghosting of a photograph under the text on pp.26-7) seems crucial here. Hartman describes Wayward Lives as a ‘dream book for existing otherwise’, and it has stayed with me like the memory of a vivid dream, enveloping in itself but always tugging you insistently towards its sources – here, towards the lives of the women systematically obscured in history, and so deeply re-imagined in Hartman’s book.

George Szirtes, The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter 

JTB George Szirtes

George Szirtes sets out his approach in this acutely poignant, perfectly pitched, and quietly but deeply moving memoir of his mother’s death and life with a wonderful lightness of touch – as an experiment taking its cue from a poem by Anthony Hecht, in which he ‘imagines the process of constructing a life backwards’, as if one could watch a ‘diver emerging feet first from the pool’, and in which ‘moving backwards may be like healing a wound’. It is a mark of Szirtes’ deftness that what attracts our attention as refreshingly counterintuitive and novel becomes, in the telling, so convincingly right as to seem the most natural, authentic way to tell the story of a person close to us. It is an approach that has great fidelity to the way we actually know another person, and to the experience of trying to fathom the history of a person ‘familiar’ to us, rather than to the convention of a cradle-to-grave narrative – and it is especially moving here given the tragic, and irreversible, experiences that the book contends with. Szirtes’ mother, Madga, was a photographer, and Szirtes incorporates her photographs (and others) into his text (offering a subtle and probing inquiry into the power of images), and working his way back from her death in 1975 in an ambulance after a suicide attempt, through her life in England raising a family, through to her exile from Hungary, her experience of the concentration camps, and reaching towards the image before all this, of the ‘photographer at sixteen’. As this already indicates, this deeply personal narrative also involves an inquiry into the traumatic history of the Holocaust and the Jewish post-war diaspora, European identity, and post-war Britain, and Szirtes’ memoir also involves an inquiry into his life as poet (as well as incorporating some of his marvellous poems into the prose). It is an extraordinary work of great depth and scope, in which Szirtes’ handling of the freight of emotion involved in these personal and historical backgrounds is unflinching yet all the more moving for being handled with such tact and poise.