Santiago Wills wins the 2021 Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant
2 de Febrero de 2021

Santiago Wills wins the 2021 Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant

The 7th edition of the award had a record number of applicants and its first Colombian winner.
Santiago Wills (Colombia), ganador de la Beca Michael Jacobs 2021. Foto: Cortesía.

Colombian journalist Santiago Wills was chosen as the winner of the 2021 Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant, awarded by the Gabo Foundation, the Hay Festival, and the Michael Jacobs Foundation for Travel Writing. 

For the 7th edition, a judging panel comprised of J.S. Tennant, 2020 grant winner, and Daniel Samper Pizano and Jon Lee Anderson, master lecturers at the Gabo Foundation, chose Wills’ proposal among 256 applicants, the largest number received since the grant’s creation in 2015. 

With his winning project, 'La sombra del jaguar: apresando el espíritu de América' (The Jaguar’s Shadow: capturing the spirit of the Americas), Wills proposes a biography of the great American feline, written from a series of journeys through its historical and current habitats in Honduras, Colombia, Suriname, and Brazil. 

As stated by the judging panel, the unanimous choice of Wills’ project is a recognition of “the quality of [his] prose” and “the originality and relevance” of the proposal that seeks to “increase awareness of this endangered species.”

The judging panel also gave an honorable mention to Santiago Tejedor (Spain) and his project Viaje por el río Napo. Crónica de dos orillas (Journey Down the Napo River. Chronicle of Two Riverbanks) for “his careful planning and eagerness to find unknown stories and original angles about the place which continuously draws long-form journalists in—the Amazon.”

Francis Jacobs, Michael’s brother, expressed his great satisfaction at the news of this year’s award. “As the chair of the Michael Jacobs Foundation for Travel Writing, I am delighted that the 7th edition of the Grant has drawn more applicants than ever before. The six previous winners have covered a wide range of countries and subjects. They have all helped to advance the Foundation’s central aim of promoting imaginative travel writing, in particular on Hispanic themes.” 

He added, “This year’s winning entry on jaguars, looking at the subject from so many different perspectives, fits in very well with the Foundation’s objectives and with Michael’s own interests in travel and in travel writing. I look forward to the completion of this fascinating project.”

“We are thrilled that so many young journalists around our continent have answered the call to tell new, quality stories with narrative depth,” said Jaime Abello, general director of the Gabo Foundation. 

“It is a sign that we are achieving the goal we set six years ago: to revive travel writing, a genre in which Michael Jacobs is and will continue to be an outstanding reference, and we are confident that Santiago Willis will be a worthy ambassador,” he added.

“We at the Hay Festival are delighted to see how this award is attracting an increasing number of very high quality talent, and how there is a growing understanding of this genre of literature and travel writing. An example of this is the recent conversation between Paul Theroux and Jon Lee Anderson in the Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias’ digital programming, which was a great lesson for everyone,” said Cristina Fuentes La Roche, international director of the Hay Festival. 

Since 2015, the Michael Jacobs Grant has been won by Álex Ayala Ugarte (Spain-Bolivia), Federico Bianchini (Argentina), Diego Cobo (Spain), Sabrina Duque (Ecuador), Ernesto Picco (Argentina), and J.S. Tennant (UK). 

The prize

With the US $7,500 grant, Wills will spend time in Paramaribo (Suriname), Pantanal (Brazil), Tierradentro and Chiribiquete (Colombia), and Ciudad Jaguar and Copán (Honduras). The aim is to expand the work already completed in Putumayo (Colombia), Pantanal (Brazil), and Mexico.

In addition, Wills will be invited to participate as a member of the judging panel in the next edition of the Michael Jacobs Travel Writing Grant and, thanks to the Manolo El Sereno Association (MAELSE), he will be able to enjoy a stay of up to one month in a house in Frailes, Andalucía (Spain), the place where Michael Jacobs wrote some of his last books. 

About La sombra del jaguar: apresando el espíritu de América (The Jaguar’s shadow: Capturing the Spirit of the Americas)

For Santiago Wills, this project is the opportunity to bring the ubiquity of the jaguar in the continent to life in a non-fiction book, including its life and relationship with the places and people around it. 

The new fellow aspires to build a work that, like those by Peter Matthiessen, Barry López, and David Quammen—with the snow leopard, the gray wolf, and the Asiatic lion, respectively—allows us to understand the life of the jaguar and how its existence has transformed those who share its terrain. 

About Santiago Wills

Journalist from Bogotá. He studied philosophy at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia as well as a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York, where he wrote about magicians and illusionists in the city, animal acting companies, rats, space garbage, how chess has been forgotten in the United States, and the psychologists and professionals who tortured an Afghan teenager in Guantánamo.

He was an intern at Univision’s investigative unit, under the direction of Gerardo Reyes. There, he participated in the reportage for a special on Operation Fast and Furious that won a Peabody Award and an IRE Award. 

He then returned to Colombia to do freelance work. Since then, he has traveled around Colombia and the United States writing stories—several of them awarded or financed by international funds or grants—about shipwrecks, gasoline smuggling, illegal gold, post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers, missing persons, the marihuana market, guerrillas, Afro-American dancer Misty Copeland, and the jaguar, an animal that has always crept through his journalistic work. 

In 2016, he wrote a profile on the director of the NGO Panthera in Colombia called Todo tiene tigre. From a branch in his research came Jaguar, his first novel, written as part of a master’s degree in creative writing at New York University, where he studied from 2017 to 2019 with a Fulbright Scholarship. Jaguar was a semi-finalist for the Herralde Prize in 2020 and will be published in 2021 by Random House. 

Wills was one of the ten nominees in the text category for the 2020 Gabo Award, with 'Almanegra'. Published in El Malpensante, this profile of an unknown tree belonging to the Magnolia polyhypsophylla species, with only 37 specimens remaining in the world, seeks to explore humanity’s relationships with plants and the plant world.


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