x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Orwell Prize for political writing attracts vibrant selection

The shortlist for the Orwell Prize gives a sense that some of the most exciting writing is taking place within the realm of issue-based, non-fiction works.

It's fair to say the Orwell Prize for political writing may not, at first, sound like the most enthralling of literary awards. But there's a real sense that, right now, some of the most exciting, thought-provoking and globally relevant writing is taking place within the realm of issue-based, non-fiction writing. The Orwell might cast itself as "Britain's most prestigious prize for political writing", but the books on its longlist covered a broader range of places, people and themes than most prizes for writing.

The shortlist, announced on Tuesday, narrowed the competition but not the scope. From Afghanistan to India, China to Japan, these books focus on everything from cybercrime to a 19th-century opium war, a murder in Tokyo to a soldier's life in Helmand. And the entry that epitomises the rude health of broadly political non-fiction writing is Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India. After two novels set in India, which, he says, were about "people in the margins, about places, classes and communities that were looked on with disdain", it felt natural to develop some of the journalistic commissions by newspapers (including The National) which naturally followed into a book.

Still, although The Beautiful and the Damned has some of its roots in reportage, it's not just a collection of snapshots of the new India.

"I approached it with a novelist's eye, absolutely," he says. "I didn't want it to be a polemical book - even though it felt like it was the right time to provoke the middle classes and the elite into thinking about the changes in India in the last 20 years. I didn't want it to be a journalist's book either, even though it does rely on hard fact, honesty and research. I wanted it to read like a novel, which meant depending heavily on characters and setting them within an unfolding narrative."

This commitment to storytelling makes itself repeatedly apparent. Deb admits there is a continued theme of people - the call centre workers, the waitresses, the tycoons - all living behind a kind of pretence. But at the same time he makes controversial points: the first chapter proper is about Arindam Chaudhuri, who, Deb claims, made his money running a business school that traded off the aspirations of poor Indian students to make something of themselves. It's a story which is India in microcosm - but Chaudhuri objected to it and filed a lawsuit. The Beautiful and the Damned is now published in India without its first chapter.

"Actually, no matter what happens with that case, the fact that it's come to legal process at all, and people are talking about it feels like a small victory," says Deb. "Because it means that the book must have had some effect. I actually have quite a lot of empathy with Chaudhuri. But there isn't really the forum for public criticism of the wealthy in India. I hope this book can help change that."

It was George Orwell himself who said that journalism is "printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations". And certainly there are chapters in one of the longlisted books that was unlucky to miss out, Conor Woodman's Unfair Trade: How Big Business Exploits the World's Poor and Why It Doesn't Have To, which might have some multinational corporations concerned. But what makes Woodman's book different isn't that he highlights the depressing lives of Chinese migrant workers in a Foxconn factory which makes Apple products - after all, The National ran a similar story about such concerns earlier this month. It's that he actually goes to Shenzhen to find out the stories for himself. It means Woodman also risks his life diving for supposedly "ethical" lobster off the coast of Nicaragua and goes down a ridiculously unsafe Congo cassiterite mine; the mineral being invaluable for the manufacture of electronic goods. It's hugely compelling stuff.

"I actually heard myself say, down that mine, that I was going to die writing this book," he laughs. "But I was chasing a specific feeling - what these people have to encounter to make a living so we can have our products. I have to go and see things for myself."

Woodman isn't thrill-seeking here - he says that getting such unique access was key to finding a narrative to these stories. Like Deb he's interested in being readable rather than overtly political.

"It not about hectoring people," says Woodman. "I'm writing in a way that is accessible and, for want of a better word, entertaining. But in a sense, it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I still believe that capitalism is the most effective way of lifting people out of poverty. My point is that it doesn't necessarily need to be exploitative."

Naturally, for both Woodman and Deb, it's a source of great pride that they have even been longlisted. But there's something greater at stake here, beyond the simple glory of recognition: that some of the vital global issues they raise are talked about. "You know," says Deb, "I remember very clearly reading George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and feeling that I'd never read non-fiction like it. It was so gripping - and yet it was about social conditions. From that moment, I knew it was important to write like that."

And Deb has every right to feel a kinship. After all, George Orwell was also born in India.

• The Orwell Prize will be announced on May 23

artslife@thenational.ae

Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE