Petina Gappah’s ‘Out of Darkness, Shining Light’ Wins 2020 Chautauqua Prize

Chautauqua Institution has announced Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light (Scribner) as the 2020 winner of The Chautauqua Prize.

As author of the winning book, Gappah receives $7,500, and will be presented with the Prize — and give a public reading — during a celebratory event at a date to be determined as part of Chautauqua Institution’s online assembly season this summer.

A powerful novel of exploration and adventure in 19th-century Africa, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a captivating story of those who carried explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone’s body across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England. “Rather than repeating the usual legend of the Livingstone expedition, Gappah reinvents the story to reveal the tyranny and complexity of colonial power,” one reader wrote, and the author’s “inspired treatment and graceful prose breathes life into her riveting account.” Another called the work a “Homer-esque, cross-cultural mini-epic; … the odyssey itself is a pleasure in prose.”

Gappah said she was “delighted” to accept the 2020 Chautauqua Prize:

“My primary identity is that of a reader, so it is wonderful to receive an award that is given to books that offer a ‘richly rewarding reading experience,’” Gappah said. “I am grateful that through the power of this award, Livingstone’s companions will now travel to readers who might otherwise not have heard of them. Thank you so much to Chautauqua Institution for this honor, but most of all, thank you for your abiding belief in the power of literature.”

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill said he was excited to share Gappah’s latest book — “this work that is challenging and upending, illuminating and difficult” — with Chautauqua’s community of readers.

“Deeply informed and richly written, Out of Darkness, Shining Light completely reorients our understanding of one of the most lasting myths of Western culture,” Hill said. “Comical one moment, and sobering the next, Petina’s writing is illustrative and instructive, and the cadences and voices she gives her characters are distinct and compelling — truly indicative of a masterful writer. We’re honored to award her The Chautauqua Prize, and to celebrate this book that pulls its story out of the darkness of history and shines a light on the many voices of our shared humanity.”

Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt, whose department coordinates the Prize, echoed Hill’s praise.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light is the 20-years-in-the-making work of a brilliant writer and well worthy of The Chautauqua Prize and a growing worldwide readership,” Ewalt said. “Petina’s beautiful prose and imaginative storytelling rewards the reader on every page. With impeccable research as a foundation, and its ability to highlight the role of literature in giving voice to those history has otherwise silenced, Out of Darkness also proves a singular contribution to the literary arts that resonates with a reader, and a community of readers.”

Out of Darkness, Shining Light has also been named a Best Book of 2019 by NPR and was on the list of Kirkus Review’s Best Historical Fiction of 2019. It also earned “Starred” reviews in both Kirkus and Library Journal. Most recently, Out of Darkness, Shining Light was a finalist for the NAACP Image Awards.

Gappah is a widely translated Zimbabwean writer who was born in Zambia. She is the author of two novels, Out of Darkness, Shining Light and The Book of Memory; and two short story collections, Rotten Row and An Elegy for Easterly. Her first play, based on the collection Rotten Row, was recently performed in Zimbabwe. She is the recipient of the Guardian First Book Award, the McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors, and a National Arts Merit Award from her native Zimbabwe. Her work has also been short-listed for, among others, the Orwell Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN/Open Book Award and the Prix Femina Etranger.

The Chautauqua Prize, this year awarded for the ninth time, is an annual prize that celebrates a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and honors the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. Previous winners include The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivák (2012); Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan (2013); My Foreign Cities, by Elizabeth Scarboro (2014); Redeployment, by Phil Klay (2015); Off the Radar, by Cyrus Copeland (2016); The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies (2017); The Fact of a Body, by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (2018); and All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva (2019).

Winners of The Chautauqua Prize are noteworthy for their capacity to open up inquiry that invites many different kinds of readers into conversation, situating the book as an ideal opportunity to engage in Chautauqua Institution’s historic tradition of reading and discussion in community. Chautauqua’s other annual literary award, the Chautauqua Janus Prize, celebrates experimental writers who have not yet published a book. Taken together, these prizes ensure that both tradition and innovation live at the heart of a Chautauqua reader’s life of learning.

Details on The Chautauqua Prize are available online at Books published in 2020 will be accepted as submissions for the 2021 Prize beginning in September 2020.

Praise for Out of Darkness, Shining Light

“Petina Gappah knows what she writes; her historical and cultural insights add texture and veracity to every page. A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about our present circumstances as the past that helped create them.”

—Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award for Fiction-winning author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

“Mixing painstaking research with a formidable imagination, Petina Gappah resurrects the brave, misguided, heroic, and ill-starred party who hauled the dried-up corpse of Dr. David Livingstone across a thousand miles of African interior to the Indian Ocean. Her narrators, a hilarious cook named Halima and a sanctimonious Christian named Jacob, cut a swath through a continent at the crossroads of colonization, superstition, religion, and slavery, illuminating the contradictions inherent in every life. This is a beautiful novel.”

—Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See

“Engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a novel that lends voice to those who appeared only as footnotes in history, yet whose final, brave act of loyalty and respect changed the course of it. An incredible and important book by a masterful writer.”

—Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing

“A sweeping epic that is also startlingly intimate, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a revelation. In luminous prose, Petina Gappah gives voice to people silenced by history, allowing them the full scope of their humanity, from petty gossip to self-righteous evangelism to romantic longings and dreams for the future. She grapples with what it means to explore other cultures, to seek answers to the questions ‘What if?’ and ‘What else?’ In doing so, she holds a funhouse mirror up to colonialist narratives like Heart of Darkness, revealing their distortions.”

—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

“Along the way, … Gappah captures the diverse cultural milieu of colonial Africa with compelling detail. The result is a rich, vivid, and addictive book filled with memorably drawn characters. This is a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalized historical voices.

Kirkus Review