British Indian author Preti Taneja has said that Aftermath is the hardest book she hopes she would ever write after the work set in the wake of the 2019 London Bridge terror attack in the UK won her the Gordon Burn Prize 2022.
The Prize, which celebrates the year’s most dazzlingly bold and forward-thinking fiction and non-fiction written in English, is now in its tenth year.
Taneja’s book was selected by a panel of judges made up of sportswriter and columnist Jonathan Liew, author Denise Mina (chair), broadcaster Stuart Maconie, artist and poet Heather Phillipson and Scotland-based Indian-origin writer Chitra Ramaswamy.
“Aftermath is the hardest book I hope I’ll ever write,” said Taneja.
“For some, it’s a controversial book. For others, it’s simply about the obvious harms of the endemic racism of a UK education system that does not teach colonial history properly; the biases in the school-to-prison pipeline and in the criminal justice system; and the corresponding narratives of policing, safety, and educational saviourism we cling to, but which fail to keep anyone safe,” she said.
Taneja is a professor of World Literature and Creative Writing at Newcastle University and her first novel, We That Are Young, a translation of ‘King Lear’ set in contemporary India, won the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018.
With Aftermath she strives to make sense of the London Bridge terror attack in 2019, when five people were stabbed – two of whom died of their injuries.
Usman Khan was a convicted terrorist who spent eight years in prison and went on to kill two people, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, at an event marking the anniversary of a prison programme he had participated in.
Taneja had taught Khan in prison and Jack Merritt was her colleague and ‘Aftermath’ is described as a profound attempt to regain trust after violence and rebuild faith in human compassion: a powerful recommitment to activism and radical hope.
“As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, Gordon Burn never shied away from the most difficult subjects. He was dedicated to finding the best form for his work, experimenting not only to achieve effect but to explore the ethics of writing about those subjects through the writing itself,” noted Taneja.
The Gordon Burn Prize, announced last week, comes with a winner’s cheque of GBP 5,000 and the opportunity to undertake a writing retreat of up to three months at Gordon Burn’s cottage in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders.
It has been set up in memory of the late author of novels like ‘Fullalove’ and non-fiction including Happy Like Murderers: The Story of Fred and Rosemary West.
The prize seeks to celebrate those who follow in Burn’s footsteps by recognising literature that is fearless in both ambition and execution. The works recognised often make the reader think again, playing with style or genre, pushing boundaries or diverging from the mainstream literary culture.
“Aftermath is a beautifully crafted and carefully judged examination of an atrocity and the structures and systems that surround it,” said judge Ramaswamy.
“I’m blown away by Preti Taneja’s writing: both the moral integrity of her approach and her fractured, minimalist prose. She has written a radical, profound, profoundly fractured and completely unique work of narrative nonfiction that has stayed with me. I haven’t read anything quite like it, and I can’t think of a more deserving winner of the Gordon Burn Prize,” she said.