Deskbound Traveller has now been doing its bit to promote the best writing on travel and place for more than five years. If you’ve been reading it even for a little of that time, you might know that one of my favourite literary awards is the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. It’s an annual prize of £10,000, made for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that “evokes the spirit of a place”. The Ondaatje — sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer — has been going a little longer than this site, and in 2019, 15 years on from the first award, the society is adding a few frills.
For the first time, there will be a long list, which will be published on March 26. A short list (it’s usually of six books) will follow on April 16, after an event at the British Library, in London, where four previous winners will speak on “the challenges and delights” of trying to summon the spirit of a place. The writers are Pascale Petit, who last year became the first poet to win, with Mama Amazonica, which tells the story of her mother’s mental illness and her own damaged childhood while celebrating the fragile beauty of the rainforest; Peter Pomerantsev, whose Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is an electrifying portrait of Putin’s Russia; Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary, whose This Boy is a memoir of poverty in post-war London; and Hisham Matar, whose debut novel, In the Country of Men, is narrated by another boy, one growing up under the repression of Gaddafi’s Libya.
The event will be chaired by the presenter Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and broadcast by Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme and available as an Arts & Ideas podcast. Members of the RSL may book through the society’s website; non-members will be able to book through the British Library site from March 8.
The judges for this year’s prize are Sabrina Mahfouz, Michèle Roberts and Ian Thomson (who in 2010 won not only the Ondaatje but also the Dolman Travel Book Award for The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica). The winner will be announced, as usual, at a dinner in the Travellers’ Club in London, to be held on May 13.