Ali Smith and Joshua Yaffa have won this year's Orwell Prizes for Political Fiction and Political Writing respectively.
Smith was awarded the fiction prize for Summer (Hamish Hamilton), the fourth and final book in her seasonal quartet. Winter and Spring were previously shortlisted and longlisted for the prize, in 2018 and 2020 respectively.
Judges said of the novel: "Capturing a snapshot of life in Britain right up until the present day, Smith takes the emotional temperature of a nation grappling with a global pandemic, the brink of Brexit, heart-breaking conditions for refugees, and so much more. It will serve as a time-capsule which will prove to be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the mood of Britain during this turbulent time.”
Yaffa scooped the political writing prize with Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia (Granta). Described by the judges as "beautiful and haunting", the book unfolds over a series of pen-portraits, including TV producers, priests and human rights activists trying to thrive in contemporary Russian. It is the Moscow-based journalist’s first book.
Both winners, who accepted their awards in videos released on 25th June, receive £3,000 and will be invited to take part in a winners' ceremony later in the year.
Smith recorded her piece in front of the Orwell mural on Southwold pier in Suffolk, and said: "I am so happy to be awarded the Orwell Prize for political fiction. Orwell’s fiction understands the acute difference between the politics of art and the artfulness of politics. His fiction demonstrates that the power of language is mighty, and that this might is life-changing, world-changing and world-forming; and that language wielded for political power alone will reduce us all to a kind of fodder for powers that be or powers that want-to-be, while the core power of art and of the arts is always expansive, dimensionalising, liberating, complex, and concerned with revealing the human condition and revitalising and re-empowering the human dimension."
Yaffa dialled in from Moscow, saying: "I’m thrilled and honoured to have won the Orwell Prize, an award that bears the name of an author who, perhaps more than any other, created a body of work that shows how one can write about politics with both clarity of thought and great humanity. That model was never far from my mind as I wrote Between Two Fires. I wanted to understand the dilemmas of compromise of the characters who form the core of the book, remaining clear eyed about their choices and the consequences of those choices, while also holding on to an empathetic reading of their lives and circumstances, oftentimes never quite sure whether I would have chosen or been able to act differently myself.
"The exercise of power and politics—especially in a place like Putin-era Russia—can complicate or scramble the pursuit of a noble, honest life, but life in all its beauty and strangeness remains all the same, even for those who make their own accommodation with the system. Orwell was a constant reference as I tried to untangle these stories and tell them with lucidity and, I hope, a measure of literary artistry."
Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation, said: "Like Orwell, both our winning authors this year are invested in the individual heart and minds’ negotiation with the pressures of their society: be it Britain heading into the 2020s, or the last two decades of Putin's Russia. Joshua Yaffa has found an extraordinary new way of looking at Russian life, and the decisions and compromises made by those who want to make a difference, while Ali Smith's ground-breaking project, her deft storytelling and sharp ear all make her a thrilling choice for this year's Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. We are grateful to the careful work, and graceful discussions of the judges. And we also want to thank Richard Blair — Orwell's son — for his generous support and interest in this prize."
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