Winners of James Tait Black Prizes Announced at Edinburgh International Book Festival Online

The winners of the James Tait Black Prizes prizes were announced by broadcaster Sally Magnusson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online this afternoon.   A memoir by poet George Szirtes whose mother was a survivor of the Holocaust and Lucy Ellman’s novel told entirely via the internal monologue of an Ohio mother of four have won the UK’s longest-running literary awards.  Szirtes and Ellman join the illustrious list of authors who have won the James Tait Black Prizes, awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh. 

George Szirtes’ winning book in the £10,000 biography prize is a fascinating exploration of the life of his mother, Magda. The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter (MacLehose Press) uses photographs and memories to trace her life, while introducing the reader to tales of suffering and survival.   Budapest-born Szirtes came to the UK as a refugee in the 1950s. His poetry has received numerous accolades including the TS Eliot prize in 2004.

George Szirtes, said: “I am delighted, grateful and astonished to be awarded the James Tait Black Prize, especially given such a marvellous short list. I am a poet and the book is written much as a poet would write it, not so much a straight story as a set of mysteries in reverse time order, starting from my mother’s suicide in 1975, through concentration camps and refugee status, ending with a set of studio photographs of her early childhood in Transylvania. She died before she saw any of my books in print. The Photographer at Sixteen is an attempt to bring her to life.”

Lucy Ellmann’s winning book in the fiction prize, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press), is a complex novel based around the ruminations of an Ohio housewife. Much of it is written in one sentence, beginning with, “The fact that…”  The award-winning author is an American-born British novelist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Previous accolades include the Goldsmiths Prize and a shortlisting for the Booker Prize. 

Lucy Ellmann, said: “Amid the daily assaults on our lives and intelligence, it is really cheering to receive this prize. My father won the James Tait Black in 1982 (for his biography of James Joyce), so it feels like quite an Oedipal coup for me to get one! And I liked the international flavour of the shortlist. English literature exists and thrives way beyond the boundaries of England. If it didn’t, there’d be little hope for it.”

The prizes are for the best work of fiction and biography during the previous 12 months. They are the only major British book awards judged by literature scholars and students. Prizes are awarded by the University of Edinburgh’s English Literature department, which is the oldest in the world.

Biography judge Dr Simon Cooke said: “George Szirtes’ reverse chronological portrait of the woman who was his mother is a piercingly beautiful memoir-as-prose-poem, as generous as it is scrupulous in its searching meditation on a death and life, on memory and history, and on how we imagine the lives of those we love.”    

Fiction judge Dr Ben Bateman, said: “Lucy Ellman’s book is an experimental and encyclopedic account of one woman’s worries large and small in Donald Trump’s America, Ducks, Newburyport is the novel of our maddening moment. It would have been impossible this year to not view the prize through the experience to be in coronavirus lockdown - these four dazzling works of fiction supplied nourishing forms of travel and encouragement of how inventive and original many forms of fiction can be.”

Since 2017 the University has also been running a MOOC in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival. The free online course – called ‘How to Read a Novel’ – draws on the James Tait Black fiction shortlist and has attracted more than 40,000 participants from across the globe.  Full details on the prizes can be found at https://www.ed.ac.uk/events/james-tait-black.

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