Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has become the first writer to be nominated for the International Booker Prize as the author and translator of the same book, and the first nominee to write in an indigenous African language.
The 83-year-old Kenyan and perennial Nobel favorite is among the 13 authors nominated for the prize for best translated fiction, a prize of £ 50,000 divided equally between author and translator. Thiong’o is nominated as a writer and translator for The Perfect Nine, a verse novel described by the judges as “a masterful and poetic story about the place of women in a society of gods,” and written in the Bantu language Gikuyu.
Thiong’o wrote novels such as A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood in English until the 1970s, when he decided to write in his native language. His work was banned by the Kenyan government and he was held without trial for a year in a maximum security prison, where he wrote Gikuyu’s first modern novel, Devil on the Cross, on toilet paper. In 2006 he told The Guardian: “In prison I began to think in a more systematic way about language. Why didn’t they arrest me earlier, when I wrote in English? It was there that I made my decision. I don’t know if I would have broken the psychological block if it hadn’t been forced by history. “
This year’s International Booker long list spans 11 languages and 12 countries, and many of his works cross genres as well. These include Benjamin Labatut’s When We Dease to Understand the World, a “non-fiction novel” that focuses on moments of scientific discovery and features Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. An Inventory of Losses, by German author Judith Schalansky, is a lost and found story. And Russian Maria Stepanova is nominated for her family story, In Memory of Memory.
Acclaimed in Russia, Stepanova’s memoirs are her English debut; Also, French author David Diop is nominated for his English debut At Night All Blood is Black, which was shortlisted for 10 major awards in France and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Olga Ravn, one of Denmark’s most celebrated novelists, is nominated for The employees, written as a series of witness statements from workers on a spaceship.
Chinese author Can Xue is the only author who has been nominated before; this time it appears in the list of his collection of stories I Live in the Slums. And Megan McDowell is the only previous nominated translator, chosen for the fourth time with her translation of the short stories by Argentine author Mariana Enríquez, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.
French author Éric Vuillard is nominated for The War of the Poor, which is just 80 pages long, while Czech-Polish author Andrzej Tichý is nominated for Wretchedness, a short novel written in Swedish with eight paragraphs of sentences in a row.
Several books explore disability: Thiong’o’s verse novel sees nine sisters traveling to find a magical cure for their younger brother, who cannot walk. Georgian filmmaker Nana Ekvtimishvili’s debut, The Pear Field, takes place in a forgotten orphanage for disabled children in post-Soviet Georgia. And Dutch author Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother follows a 13-year-old boy who is left in the care of his physically and mentally disabled older brother.
The chair of the judges, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, said that from the 125 books presented for the award this year another theme emerged: “migration, its pain, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world.”
“Not all writers stay in their home countries,” he said. “Many do and write fantastic works of fiction about their hometowns. But our list includes a Czech / Polish author’s vision of a drug-fueled Swedish underworld, a Dutch author from Chile writing in Spanish about German and Danish scientists, and a Senegalese author writing from France about Africans fighting in a European war.
Authors cross borders, like books, refusing to stay in rigidly separate categories. We have read books that were like biographies, like myths, like essays, like meditations, like works of history, each one transformed into a work of fiction by the creative energy of the author’s imagination ”.
As in previous years, the long list is once again dominated by small printers, with Fitzcarraldo Editions, editor of the previous winner Olga Tokarczuk, twice nominated for In Memory of Memory by Stepanova and Minor Detail by Palestinian author Adania Shibli. Pushkin Press is also nominated twice, by Diop and Labatut.
Hughes-Hallett is joined on the judging panel by Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam, novelist Neel Mukherjee, historian Olivette Otele and poet George Szirtes. The short list of six books will be announced on April 22 and the winner on June 2.
The International Booker Long List 2021
I live in the slums of Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (Yale University Press)
At night all blood is black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press)
Nana Ekvtimishvili’s Pear Field, translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press)
The dangers of smoking in bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta Books)
When We Dease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press)
The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author (Harvill Secker)
The employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions)
Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from the Dutch by David Doherty (World Editions)
An inventory of losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith (Quercus)
Minor detail of Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
In memory of memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Andrzej Tichý’s Misery, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley (And other stories)
Éric Vuillard’s War of the Poor, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Pan Macmillan)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism