Ondaatje prize: Aida Edemariam wins for vivid biography of her grandmother

Guardian journalist’s The Wife’s Tale takes the £10,000 Royal Society of Literature award for a work best evoking ‘spirit of a place’.

Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale, a biography of her grandmother who was born in northern Ethiopia more than 100 years ago and married at the age of eight, has won the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje prize.

Given to a work of literature that best evokes the “spirit of a place”, the Royal Society of Literature award counts Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes and Alan Johnson’s This Boy among its former winners. Edemariam, a Guardian journalist, beat titles including Sarah Moss’s conjuring of iron age Northumberland, Ghost Wall, and Adam Weymouth’s travelogue, Kings of the Yukon, to this year’s prize.

Telling the story of the life of her paternal grandmother, Yetemegnu, The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History draws from research and Edemariam’s interviews with Yetemegnu to write what Ondaatje prize judge and novelist Michèle Roberts described as a mix of “memoir, oral history, fiction and snatches of prayer”. The story moves from Yetemegnu’s birth to her marriage to a cleric and poet two decades older than her, through fascist occupation, the rise and fall of ruler Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war. She died in 2013 at the age of 97.

The biography is a “beautiful, complicated [and] sensual account”, says Roberts. “Her original form and newly minted language create a strong, delicate structure embodying her grandmother’s spirit and will to survive.”

Fellow judge Sabrina Mahfouz said Edemariam’s writing “pulses spectacularly with heart and soul, vividly depicting one inimitable woman centred within the swirling winds of politics, religion, patriotism and change”.

(Agent for Aida Edamariam: Peter Straus).