Aida Edemariam wins the 2019 RSL Ondaatje Prize

News - Prizes Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Author of The Wife’s Tale (Fourth Estate) picked up £10,000 cheque for best book 'evoking the spirit of a place' at the Travellers Club last night


Published by 4th Estate, The Wife's Tale is the story of Edemariam's grandmother Yetemegnu and her life in Ethopia throughout the course of the 20th century, which saw a fascist invasion, the collapse of an ancient monarchy and a communist dictatorship.

In her victory speech, Edemariam said: "it took an entire family to be very tolerant of me as I asked a lot of questions, and it went on for a long time - 20 years. And thank you to my grandmother." She also thanked her editor, Nicholas Pearson, and her agent, Peter Straus.

Edemariam, who is of dual Ethiopian and Canadian heritage, grew up in Addis Ababa, before studying English Literature at Oxford and the University of Toronto. She is a senior feature writer for the Guardian.

The Wife’s Tale won a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for a work of non-fiction in progress - with Edemariam thanking the RSL last night for its support - and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada.

The judges all commented on the book. Michèle Roberts said: "Aida Edemariam mixes memoir, oral history, fiction and snatches of prayer to compose this beautiful, complicated, sensual account of her grandmother’s life. Her original form and newly-minted language create a strong, delicate structure embodying her grandmother’s spirit and will to survive."

Sabrina Mahfouz said: "Lyrical, loving storytelling of a family history at an epic time in Ethiopia’s own history. The writing pulses spectacularly with heart and soul, vividly depicting one inimitable woman centred within the swirling winds of politics, religion, patriotism and change."

Ian Thomson, the third judge said: "Aida Edemariam’s is an outstanding and highly unusual
memoir, that absorbs the reader from start to finish. I was moved by the book’s strong poetic voice and the marvellous quality of the writing throughout."

The RSL Ondaatje Prize is given annually for 'a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place'. The other shortlisted books this year were:
- No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (Oneworld) by Rania Abouzeid
- Happiness (Bloomsbury) by Aminatta Forna
- Ghost Wall (Granta) by Sarah Moss
- The Crossway (Picador) by Guy Stagg
- Kings of the Yukon: A River Journey (Particular Books) by Adam Weymouth

The prize is now in its 15th year, and has a distinguished roll-call; the full list of winners is:

2018 Pascale Petit Mama Amazonica
2017 Francis Spufford Golden Hill
2016 Peter Pomerantsev Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
2015 Justin Marozzi Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood
2014 Alan Johnson This Boy
2013 Philip Hensher Scenes from Early Life
2012 Rahul Bhattacharya The Sly Company of People Who Care
2011 Edmund de Waal The Hare with Amber Eyes
2010 Ian Thomson The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica
2009 Adam Nicolson Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History
2008 Graham Robb The Discovery of France
2007 Hisham Matar In the Country of Men
2006 James Meek The People’s Act of Love
2005 Rory Stewart The Places In Between
2004 Louisa Waugh Hearing Birds Fly

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