Nigerian writer Helon Habila has been shortlisted for the 2020 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Travellers, which follows the journey of characters from several African countries making their way across Europe.

Also on the shortlist for the fiction category are Irish novelist Edna O’brien for Girl, a Chibok girls-inspired novel, Booker-shortlisted author Lucy Ellmann for Ducks, Newburryport and Sarah Hall for Sudden Traveller.

The four books on the shortlist, according to the prize administrators, “include a story told from the perspective of a middle-aged Ohio woman, a novel about a group of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe, a collection of short stories exploring the journey of seven characters’ lives in different parts of the world, and the imagined story of a Nigerian school girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group.”

First awarded in 1919, the James Tait Black Prize is presented in two categories: fiction and biography. The award, which is one of the UK’s oldest literary prizes, is annually presented by the University of Edinburgh in memory of James Tait Black at his wife’s bequest.

Entries for the prize are screened by postgraduate students at the university under the supervision of two academic judges, providing recommendations from which the eventual shortlist is selected from. Winners in each category receive a cash prize of  £10,000.

Dr Benjamin Bateman, fiction judge, said: “At our trying hour of staying home, these four dazzling works of fiction supply nourishing forms of travel – around the world, across perilous borders, and into the thoughts of compelling characters whose personal and political emergencies demand our attention.”

Previous winners of African descent include the South African novelists Nadine Gordimer for A Guest of Honor (1971) and JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was shortlisted in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun.

The winners of both prizes will be announced in August at a virtual Edinburgh International Book Festival. The online event celebrating the eight titles will be part of the festival’s virtual program.

Brittle Paper congratulates Helon Habila.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report omitted Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee as previous winners and wrongly stated that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the 2007 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun. It has now been corrected to include Gordimer and Coetzee and to clarify that Adichie was a finalist for the prize (which ultimately went to American author Cormac McCarthy for The Road).