I think every good travel book should be the product of an internal need and often of an unexpected intuition. Michael Jacobs
After Michael Jacob’s passing in 2014, the FNPI (Gabriel García Márquez New Journalism Foundation) and the Cartagena Hay Festival—which have enjoyed a decade-long partnership—decided to jointly organise the Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant as an homage to the British writer. This year, the grant enjoys the support of the Michael Jacobs Foundation.
British journalist and translator J.S. Tennant was awarded the Michael Jacobs Grant for travel reporters 2020, granted by Fundación Gabo, Hay Festival and The Michael Jacobs Foundation for Travel Writing.
For the sixth edition, a panel of judges composed by Ernesto Picco, grant holder in 2019, Daniel Samper Pizano and Jon Lee Anderson, professors at Fundación Gabo, selected the candidature of Tennant among 244 applications coming from 31 countries. Tennant is the first English speaker recognized with this grant.
Mrs. Gargantua: Cuba, the United States and the New Man, the winning project, is a book of unheard stories of an island with many secrets, which seeks to delight and inform in equal measure.
According to the jury's record, Tennant's proyect was chosen unanimously. The jury reaffirmed its vote for good journalism, highlighting how the proposal challenges “the traditional approach to Cuba from a political perspective and, instead, discovers a diverse and fascinating country through its trip, with stories about gorillas, scientists, caverns with graffiti and other issues".
Desde su primera edición en 2015 han ganado la Beca Michael Jacobs el hispanoboliviano Álex Ayala Ugarte, el argentino Federico Bianchini, el español Diego Cobo, la ecuatoriana Sabrina Duque y el argentino Ernesto Picco.
From its first edition in 2015, this scholarship has made visible new journalistic references in the field of travel writing: Álex Ayala Ugarte (Spain-Bolivia), Federico Bianchini (Argentina), Diego Cobo (Spain), Sabrina Duque (Ecuador) and Ernesto Picco (Argentina).
About Mrs. Gargantúa
Beyond being a traditional travelogue, in which the journey or discovery has a intrinsic meaning, Mrs. Gargantua is is the record of a place at a certain time and over time. The stories of Tennant's own trips, carried out over 15 years, serve as opportunities to talk about emblematic figures - both famous and less known - that have shaped the history of Cuba.
The book's idea is to allow Cuba to speak for itself, through portraits of people and oral stories, such as the farmer whose farm was turned into a secret base for nuclear warheads during the Cuban missile crisis, a Ukranian who arrived as a child to Cuba to receive treatment after the explossion of Chernobyl or the story of the eponimous Sra. Gargantúa, a famous gorilla raised ina house in Havana, and then taken by force to the United States, where she was a media star.
With the $ 7,500 awarded by the Michael Jacobs Scholarship, Tennant will return to Cuba in the summer of 2020 and will remain there for two months to gather additional material for his book and thus finish a text through which other people will be able to inhabit their reality of Cuba.
About J.S. Tennant
Born in North Yorkshire (England), Tennant is a Commonwealth Writers program officer at The Commonwealth Foundation. He studied literature, languages and cultural theory at Trinity College (Dublin), the University of Salamanca and Cambridge. His first chronicle about Cuba earned him the award for ‘Travel Chronicler of the Year’ at the Irish Student Media Awards.
After working a couple of years in Switzerland as a ghost writer, he lived in Cuba, a place that fascinated and confused him alike - and has continued to visit intermittently, before settling in London. There he worked in the publishing industry and then at PEN International as director of literary programs in Iceland, Russia, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Argentina and Kyrgyzstan. His collaboration at PEN gave him the chance to meet Michael Jacobs twice: at the Hay Festival in Xalapa and in Cartagena.
Meanwhile, he has set aside the necessary time to write about his travels, as chronicles show about his meeting in Chile with a Nicanor Parra of ninety-nine, or with the crown prince of Liechtenstein in his castle in the Alps. His articles have appeared in The Independent, The Guardian, Observer, Wall Street Journal, Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, The White Review, The Mays or Modern Poetry in Translation, and the magazines Crítica, de México, and Quimera, de España, among other publications. He is currently associate editor of The White Review, where he was poetry editor between 2011 and 2016.
He has translated into English works by poets and writers such as Enrique Vila-Matas, Juan Gelman, Gioconda Belli, Ernesto Cardenal, Tedi López Mills, Luis Felipe Fabre or César Vallejo.
This grant’s purpose is to provide an incentive for travel journalism. The fourth edition awarded 7,500 American dollars to a travel book or article project that takes Spanish Latin America or Spain for its subject, to be published in Spanish or English.
In selecting the winner, the jury considered the narrative quality and the journalistic depth of the projects. For Michael Jacobs, travel journalism went beyond the mere anecdote, and this grant therefore seeks work capable of awakening the five senses and opening the mind of the reader.
From its first edition, this scholarship has made visible new journalistic references in the field of travel writing: Álex Ayala Ugarte, from Spain, winner in 2015 with his book Rigor Mortis: La normalidad es la muerte; Federico Bianchini, from Argentina, winner in 2016 with the book Antártida: 25 días encerrado en el hielo; Diego Cobo, from Spain, winner in 2017, with the series Huellas negras: el rastro de la esclavitud; in 2018, the winner was Sabrina Duque, from Ecuador, with the project Nicaragua: pueblos, lava y ceniza. 2019's award was received by the Argentinian Ernesto Picco, with Un pequeño país aparte, a book on a journey to the Falkland Islands, the object of an ongoing sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom
For more information about the scholarship details, click here.
Michael Jacobs was born in Italy in 1952, spent his youth in England, and later travelled to different parts of the world, investigating and writing about Spain and Latin America. He became a notable Hispanist and a passionate devotee of Spanish culture.
Although he studied art history at Courtauld Institute, he decided to leave behind that career to write. After writing several books on art, he published Andalucía, the first of many books dedicated to this region of Spain. He later took up residence in a small town called Frailes in the province of Jaén, the subject of The Factory of Light: Tales From My Andalucian Village, an account of his first five years in this village of two thousand people.
In 2003, he published Ghost Train Trough the Andes, a tale of his journey through Chile and Bolivia, recreating his grandparents’ love story on a train trip across the Andes, between Antofagasta and Potosí.
Michael Jacobs’ appeal in the Spanish-speaking world was so great that the small town of Frailes became his Macondo. Perhaps that explains why the day that he met Gabo at the Cartagena Hay Festival inflected his life. They spoke about Gabo’s memories of the Magdalena River, an obsession of Jacobs’. That meeting with García Márquez moved the Englishman to travel the waterway the next year, a journey recorded in his book The Robber of Memories. This, his last book, is not only a portrait of the most important fluvial artery in Colombia but also a nostalgic reminiscence of his relationship to his parents and his childhood.
Today, Jacobs is a global benchmark when it comes to travel writing and his work is a staple of travel writing canons. Michael Jacobs passed away in London on January 11, 2014, leaving behind an unmatched and evocative legacy.