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Judging the James Tait Black Prizes 2021: Aiswarya Jayamohan

First year PhD in English Literature candidate Aiswarya Jayamohan talks about their experience as a Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography.

Established in 1919, the James Tait Black (JTB) Prizes for Biography and Fiction have been awarded annually for over a century.

Photo of Aiswarya Jayamohan
Aiswarya Jayamohan, PhD candidate and JTB Student Reader for Biography

The Prizes are the only major awards of their kind in Britain to be judged by scholars, including postgraduate students. As well as awards for Biography and Fiction, there is also a Drama Prize.

First year English Literature PhD candidate (and MSc graduate) Aiswarya Jayamohan is one of 12 Student Readers for this year’s Biography Prize, the shortlist for which includes books by Kate Fullagar, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Sudhir Hazareesingh and Rebecca Solnit.

In this short article, Aiswarya tells us why the accessible and inclusive judging process was a key draw for them, and how the Biography Prize shortlist resonates with their own research.

New scholarly perspectives

Aiswarya was a masters student on our MSc in Literature and Modernity programme when they first found out about the James Tait Black Prizes and our staff and students' role in judging them.

They reflect “I remember how surprised I was to find that graduate students were involved in the decision-making process.”

“If the mechanics of other major book prizes can sometimes seem obscure and inaccessible, the JTB Prize - in inviting the English department's diverse graduate community to participate - feels like an affirmation of a prize culture that is anything but that. It was this interest in transparency and new scholarly perspectives that encouraged me to apply as a reader in the very first year of my doctoral degree.”

Radical uses, misuses, and refusals

Aiswarya was drawn to the Biography Prize in particular because of their personal interest in life writing, “particularly of and by 'minor' voices across time”.

Asked about the crossover with their research, they said “I did feel like I had gatecrashed the committee a little at first; while my PhD research on queer modes of mis/use draws on biographical sources, I work mainly with twentieth and twenty-first century fiction.”

“Still, I found that the radical uses, misuses, and refusals that I prioritise in my research were equally worth foregrounding in our stunning shortlist, comprising books that introduced to us new and startling ways of ‘using’ history.”

“These ranged from Sudhir Hazareesingh's refusal to concede Toussaint Louverture to easy myth-making in Black Spartacus, to the innovative, moving negotiations with difficult archives that make up Doireann Ní Ghríofa's A Ghost In The Throat and Kate Fullagar's The Warrior, the Voyager and the Artist, to Rebecca Solnit's quiet dismantling of the demands we place on personal history and the 'trauma memoir' in Recollections of My Non-Existence.”

Collective scholarly joy

This is the first year in which the James Tait Black judging process has taken place (mostly) remotely. The student panel read each of the four shortlisted entries as e-books before meeting Biography Judge, Dr Simon Cooke, in June 2021 to discuss the books at length and decide the Prize winner. Some students participated virtually; others had a socially-distanced meet-up on The Meadows.

Reflecting on the process, Aiswarya says “The discussions that emerged during our energetic committee meeting brought out the best in both the shortlisted books and the PhD researchers.”

“The unusual chance to bring together a variety of disciplines and methods from across the Department of English informed all of our reading experiences (and final choices!) in truly meaningful ways.”

“As a team, then, we explored some of the most compelling works of life writing produced this year with a kind of collective scholarly joy that I had missed dearly over the past year, and which I hope to revisit during the next edition of the Prize.”

Find out more about the books on the James Tait Black shortlist on the University of Edinburgh website

James Tait Black at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

This year, the announcement of the James Tait Black (JTB) Prize winners will be part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s virtual programme.

You can tune in to watch or listen to broadcaster Sally Magnusson, the Prize judges, University of Edinburgh students, and the nominated authors discuss the books before the winners are revealed.

You pay what you can to watch online. The content is available live, then on-demand until Thursday 30th September 2021.

Find out more about the JTB event on the Edinburgh International Book Festival website

Are you interested in a PhD in English Literature?

Being a Student Reader for the James Tait Black Prizes is just one of many great opportunities available to our PhD candidates. We offer two PhDs: one in English Literature; and one in Creative Writing. Working with colleagues in LLC and across the wider University, we are able to support research which crosses boundaries between disciplines and/or languages.

Find out more about PhD study in English Literature with us

Related links

Find out more about the James Tait Black Prizes 

Read more about Aiswarya and their doctoral research