Hilary Mantel has just been long-listed for the Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies, her brilliant follow-up to Wolf Hall, which netted the coveted Booker itself in 2009. We at The Spectator can’t trumpet this enough – you see, Hilary was the first-ever winner of our Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize in 1987. The prize, awarded for ‘the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer’, is named after the author of Fireflies and North of South, the late younger brother of VS Naipaul. In 2007, we thought we’d be giving our last-ever Shiva Naipaul award, but we have decided to revive the annual prize, which this year will be judged by Colin Thubron and Joanna Kavenna.
‘Original, incisive, unafraid’
During the 1970s and early eighties, when I lived in Botswana, I read a great deal about the continent on which I found myself. The natural world was there to observe, fresh every morning, but other aspects of life — history and politics — were more murky, occluded. The expatriates, too, amazed me, with their sometimes colourful pasts, their strange assumptions about the modern world, their sense of noblesse oblige and their attempts to create little Englands wherever they settled. Nothing I read, fiction or non-fiction, seemed to capture the atmosphere of time or place. Then I came across Shiva Naipaul’s travel book, North of South.
I still have the paperback I bought in 1979, with its cover endorsement by Bruce Chatwin. But ‘absolutely first-rate,’ though true, didn’t seem to cover it. Shiva had travelled through a swathe of countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, though new nations painfully creating themselves, north of the white giant of apartheid South Africa. His eye was sharp and jaundiced, his temper splenetic; it was a great change from the pious and romantic clichés I had found in other travel books. And he wrote about facets of his African experience — for example, the tension between black Africans and Indians — which seemed to escape the average Westerner, and which were awkward to discuss. He was not needlessly provocative, but he was unsparing. His experience resonated with mine, and so did the way he wrote about it.
So when I had returned to England, via a stay in Saudi Arabia, and I saw the Spectator’s advertisement for the first Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, I didn’t hesitate. My entry might not be a winning entry, I thought, but it would be an essay Shiva, if he had lived, would have read with recognition. I had already published two novels but, as is the way of things, nobody had really noticed. My essay about Saudi Arabia caught the eye of the judges and was the beginning of an upturn in my career. Winning meant a great deal in practical terms, but the honour meant just as much. I am delighted that the prize has been relaunched. I hope it will produce something in Shiva Naipaul’s spirit, a piece of writing that is original, incisive and unafraid.
The Shiva Naipaul prize is awarded to the writer best able to describe a visit to a foreign place or people, in an unpublished essay of up to 3,000 words. The award is not for travel writing in the conventional sense, but for the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer. Such a culture might be found as easily within the writer’s native country as outside it. The annual competition is open to English language writers of any nationality under the age of 35 on the closing date of entries (30 October 2012).
The winner will receive £3,000 and the winning entry will be published in The Spectator. The judges this year include Colin Thubron and Joanna Kavenna.
For details of rules and entry procedure, write to: Clarissa Tan, The Spectator, 22 Old Queen Street, London SW1H 9HP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We will be setting up an online archive of all previous winning entries of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, including Hilary’s 1987 piece on Jeddah, in the coming weeks.
UPDATE: Hilary Mantel’s Shiva Naipaul-winning piece from 1987 has been added to our web archive. You can read it here.