Thought Box

Exploration of gender, a key theme on this year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist

Exploration of gender, a key theme on this year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist

by Shruthi Venkatesh March 26 2019, 2:08 pm Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 52 secs

On embracing the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Book Prize 2019, the best new books that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives has been shortlisted on 19th March. These books include:

Wellcome 2019 longlist covers

* Amateur: A reckoning with gender, identity and masculinity (Canongate Books) by Thomas Page McBee (USA) Non-fiction

* Heart: A history (Oneworld) by Sandeep Jauhar (India/USA) Non-fiction

* Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery (Penguin Ireland) by Arnold Thomas Fanning (Ireland) Non-fiction

* Murmur (CB Editions) by Will Eaves (UK) Fiction

*My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape) by Ottessa Moshfegh (USA) Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (The Text Publishing Company) by Sarah Krasnostein (Australia/USA) Non-fiction.

On the judging panel, the award-winning novelist Elif Shafak, said that the books would “grip your mind in the very first pages, break your heart halfway through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings and their endless capacity for resilience”.

“As well as gender, these books also focus on masculinity,” said Shafak. “We are talking about masculinity in a way we’ve never done before, and to see that reflected in the world of literature, fiction and non-fiction, was interesting. The way these books approach the construction of masculinity is very brave, very honest.”

As stated by the organization, the six titles in contention for the £30,000 prize explore complex relationships with gender, identity, mental health and mortality.

Award-winning author Elif Shafak with other judges for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019

Shafak said, Amateur explores “what we expect of men, what we expect men to be like, and how that can be a straitjacket”. “As feminists, we’ve always said that the patriarchy makes women unhappy, but we need to emphasise over and over that patriarchy can make men unhappy as well, make them feel restrained, restricted, so this is a very brave voice.” Murmur, meanwhile, analyses “an individual with an amazing mind, who is ahead of his time, and yet constricted by society and its expectations”. “There is masculinity there, but also [asks] how do we treat difference – which is a question we are still dealing with and haven’t been able to solve.”  Ottessa Moshfegh’s savagely comic My Year of Rest and Relaxation chronicles a privileged New York woman’s decision to enter a drug-induced coma to sleep away her emotions.

Gender is also integral to two of this year’s shortlisted non-fiction books. Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden, provides an unflinching exploration into the limitations of conventional masculinity and the vexed relationship between men and violence. Sarah Krasnostein’s compelling biography The Trauma Cleaner, uncovers the complex life of Sandra Pankhurst – husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife – and how her journey through childhood abuse, trauma and trans-phobic hostility has led her to bring order and care to both the living and the dead.

The final two titles on the list explore mental health and mortality. Arnold Thomas Fanning’s beautifully written memoir, Mind on Fire, is a harrowing insight into the consciousness of someone living with mania, psychosis and severe depression, and has visited hellish regions of the mind and survived to tell the tale. In Heart: A history, cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar draws on both his professional expertise and his personal medical history to give an unparalleled insight into this extraordinary organ, and the importance of facing our own mortality.

Shafak said the books on the shortlist for this year’s Wellcome prize tackle timely topics. “They ask difficult questions … they blend personal with scientific research, cultural with historical, they are very creative,” she said. “And these voices are very honest. They are unflinching, very candid, even when they’re across difficult subjects. I find them very brave, every book on our shortlist.”

The shortlisted authors are from the UK, USA, India, Australia and Ireland, and include two debuts Arnold Thomas Fanning (Mind on Fire) and Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner). Four independent publishers appear on the list: Canongate, CB Editions, Oneworld and The Text Publishing Company.

The winner will be revealed at an evening ceremony on Wednesday 1 May at Wellcome Collection.

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