Cundill History Prize 2023: Tania Branigan named winner

Cundill History Prize 2023: Tania Branigan named winner

Guardian writer picks up award for her groundbreaking work on China's Cultural Revolution

by Suswati Basu
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In a momentous announcement made at a lively ceremony in Montreal’s Windsor Ballroom, Tania Branigan, the esteemed Foreign Leader Writer at The Guardian, has been crowned the winner of the 2023 Cundill History Prize. Branigan clinched the coveted prize, which carries a substantial purse of US$75,000, for her remarkable work titled “Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution,” published by Faber & Faber.

What is the Cundill History Prize?

The Cundill History Prize, the most substantial non-fiction book prize in English, recognises exceptional historical writing worldwide. It welcomes books from any origin and includes translated works.

Tania Branigan’s triumph: Cundill History Prize awarded for ‘Red Memory’

The 2023 Cundill History Prize jurors hailed Branigan’s book as a “haunting” excavation of the Cultural Revolution, lauding her for shedding light on a four-decade-long silence that followed countless hours of interviews. “Red Memory” also gives a powerful voice to those who endured Mao’s tumultuous decade, unravelling a deeply rooted scar in Chinese society and the souls of its citizens, exposing a “major trauma” that continues to cast a long shadow over the nation.

Read: Baillie Gifford Prize 2023: 6 outstanding books on shortlist

Philippa Levine, the Chair of the Jury, made the announcement amid an eager audience, surrounded by the 2023 finalists and jury members. Among the finalists, Kate Cooper, author of “Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine’s Confessions,” and James Morton Turner, who penned “Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future,” were each honoured with US$10,000 prizes. The ceremony was expertly hosted by Nahlah Ayed, the host of CBC Ideas. McGill University, the administrator of the Cundill History Prize, hosts the annual Cundill Festival in Montreal.

Unveiling the Cultural Revolution: the haunting journey

Chair of the Jury, Philippa Levine, expressed her admiration for Branigan’s work, stating, “Haunting and memorable, Tania Branigan’s sensitive study of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the lives and psyches of an entire generation in China affected every juror, as it will every reader. All of us found ourselves unable to stop thinking about this extraordinary book. All of us were deeply moved by the trauma she so vividly describes and by the skills on which she drew in doing so. This is a must-read.”

Recognising excellence in historical scholarship

The Dean of the Faculty of the Arts at McGill, Lisa Shapiro, also commended the 2023 Cundill History Prize, remarking, “2023 has been a tremendous year for the Cundill History Prize. The jurors managed to arrive at an exceptional longlist of 14 titles, but they still had their work cut out for them to arrive at a shortlist. The eight short-listed titles were announced at a wonderful event in New York City – the first time the Prize had visited the US since 2019. And from those eight titles the jurors chose three superb finalists, each speaking to distinct dimensions of today’s world. Tania Branigan’s winning book truly embodies the Cundill History Prize’s aims: it is not only an outstanding achievement in historical scholarship, it also engages the reader and demonstrates the real importance of history writing for understanding our world.”

Previous winners of the award are:

  • Tiya Miles (2022)
  • Marjoleine Kars (2021)
  • Camilla Townsend (2020)
  • Julia Lovell (2019)
  • Maya Jasanoff (2018)
  • Daniel Beer (2017)
  • Thomas W. Laqueur (2016)
  • Susan Pedersen (2015)

Branigan’s remarkable achievement in unearthing the hidden stories of China’s Cultural Revolution has not only earned her the Cundill History Prize but also ensured that the voices of those who lived through this tumultuous period are finally heard on a global stage. Consequently, “Red Memory” is a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of history on the collective consciousness and serves as a testament to the power of storytelling to illuminate our understanding of the world.

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