The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.
Olivette Otele is the author of 'African Europeans: An Untold History', shortlisted for this year’s Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Our judges called the book “a detailed, surprising and moving account of the long history of Africans in Europe. [It] carefully charts the multiple interlinkages between two worlds often seen as separate, and in the process casts a light on contemporary debates about race and identity.”
What role do you think historians can play in contemporary political discourse? Are there other historians working today whose work you think sheds light on our current moment?
Historians have always been at the forefront of political debates and history writing has been used as a tool to educate, to create narratives that are deemed relevant for a sense of national unity and so on. Contemporary politics is no different. It is really in recent years that we have seen the role of experts, and historians in particular, being denigrated. Interestingly that happens at a time when we also see an increase of plurality of voices of historians from more varied backgrounds. There are many historians whose work I find absolutely crucial in challenging established narratives in different areas. If we look only at the UK, I’m thinking about Professors David Andress, Margot Finn, Kim Wagner, David Olusoga, Drs Sadiah Qureshi, Angelina Osbourne, Rochelle Rowe, Meleisa Ono-George - and so many others.
The recurrent phrase among readers of this book is “I can’t believe I didn’t know these stories, and this history”. Why do you think that awareness of the historic Black presence in Europe has been so slow to emerge?
It has been slow because some of these stories have been shared in some places, forgotten in others and more importantly they have not been part of the ‘grand narratives’ taught in schools, at university levels and so. They haven’t been brought together either at a European level and it was therefore difficult for people to see the vast network of people of African descent that existed in Europe. People know more about either slavery (mostly the story about Britain’s role in the abolitions) or the World Wars and post war migration.
The book is full of amazing people and memorable anecdotes. Is there one you’d particularly like to highlight to someone who hasn’t read the book yet?
It really is a difficult choice because I am very fond of all of them even when they are not particularly nice (I am thinking here about Septimius Severus or Alessandro de Medici). However, if I had to choose today, it would be the Nardal Sisters (Jeanne and Paulette). I love powerful women and these two Caribbean-born women were incredible. In the interwar period in Paris, they were able to bring people from various communities together to find resistance against discrimination and they demonstrated that differences of backgrounds are actually a source of great wealth for all of us.
Who are the writers – non-fiction or fiction – you would say have (in Orwell’s phrase) “turned political writing into an art”?
The very first person I am thinking about is the wonderful James Baldwin. Professors Martha S. Jones and Sunny Singh come very close. Their sharp and beautiful writing simply blows my mind. I am also thinking about the authors I had the privilege to read as one of the judges of the 2021 International Man Booker Prize and in particular, this year’s winner David Diop, shortlisted author Eric Vuillard and the longlisted and world renown novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There are of course hundreds of others I could list here, if you had room for that!
Image credit: Hurst Publishers