Rwanda tale nabs British award for best first book

The Guardian newspaper picks Philip Gourevitch's front-line account of the African genocide.

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The inaugural reception of the Guardian First Book Award was held at the Le Meridien hotel in London's Piccadilly on Dec. 2. Previously known as the Guardian Fiction Prize, this year the award was changed to focus only on first books; it now includes both fiction and nonfiction. The prize differs from other existing literary prizes in that the short-list was decided by reading groups organized by the bookstore chain Borders.

The short-listed novels included "The Blue Bedspread" by Raj Kamal Jha, a novel of corrupted family relationships set against the teeming cityscape of Calcutta; "Boxy an Star" by Daren King, perhaps the year's most controversial first novel because it is written in argot and looks into the minds of two fourth-generation Ecstasy users; and "Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell, an experimental novel about ghosts and identity in the form of nine intertwined stories.

The short-list was intended to include three novels and three nonfiction books, and Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead expressed regret in her speech that they had not been able to include an additional novel, "By the Shore" by Galaxy Craze, which scored high with the reading groups. This provoked speculation about which nonfiction book wouldn't have made the list if Craze was included, with some wondering if the eventual winner might not even have been short-listed.

The nominated nonfiction titles were "The Lighthouse Stevensons" by Bella Bathurst, an account of the dynasty of lighthouse builders that produced the writer Robert Louis Stevenson; "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," by Philip Gourevitch, a front-line account of the Rwandan genocide, with analysis of its causes and consequences; and "No Place Like Home" by Gary Younge, which describes a young black British journalist's experiences as he travels through the American South on the trail of the mythology that shaped his racial identity.

The final decision was made by a panel of judges that included novelist Alex Garland ("The Beach"), biographer Amanda Foreman and broadcaster Trevor Phillips. Praised in the press by novelists William Boyd, A.S. Byatt, Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk, "Ghostwritten" scored high with the reading groups and was an early favorite for the prize. The panel, however, preferred Philip Gourevitch's "We Wish to Inform You," and it was Gourevitch who won. In a polished speech, he spoke of how the people in Rwanda had been amazed that anyone in America would be interested in their stories. That the interest had also spread to the United Kingdom delighted him, he said, especially as the Guardian had been such an important source of information during the period he was writing the book.

Before the check for #10,000 (roughly $16,200)
was presented to Gourevitch, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke of how he had stepped down from the judging panel after Guardian journalist Gary Younge was nominated, fearing that he would be accused of bias. He also spoke of how he hoped the award would fill a gap between existing prizes, claiming that the Guardian was always keen to champion the new, and that most awards tend to be given for lifetime achievement rather than early promise.

The party was a lavish affair, attended by an impressive number of top agents, authors and editors as well as representatives from the reading groups, who proved fiercely enthusiastic about their selections. Claire Armitstead commented in her speech about overhearing two rival groups fiercely debating the merits of "Boxy an Star." She also spoke of how enjoyable the whole process had been, even if it meant she'd had to go on summer holiday with a car full of 150 books. With this year's prize proving so successful, no doubt the Guardian First Book Award will go on to become a permanent fixture in the prize-giving calendar.

By Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne lives in London and is the author of "Tourist," "Eight Minutes Idle" and "Dreaming of Strangers." He also co-edited "All Hail the New Puritans."

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