[The JRB Daily] The 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced—including Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste

The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist has been revealed—and includes two African authors for the first time in years: Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste, for their novels This Mournable Body and The Shadow King, respectively.

Dangarembga, who was recently arrested during an anti-government protest in Harare, is Zimbabwean, while United States-based Mengiste hails originally from Ethiopia.

Scroll down for the full six-book shortlist.

The Booker Prize is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The prize was opened to writers of all citizenships in 2014, prompting concern that American novelists would come to dominate the award. All of this year’s shortlisted authors are based outside the UK, with the United States indeed dominating: apart from Dangarembga, all the authors on the shortlist are either American or have joint US citizenship.

The last time two writers from Africa were shortlisted was in 1999, when South African (now South African–Australian) writer JM Coetzee and Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif were shortlisted for Disgrace and The Map of Love, respectively, with Coetzee going on to the win the award.

Before that, claiming dual African shortlistees becomes more tenuous. Doris Lessing, usually considered be a British–Zimbabwean (then-Rhodesian) novelist, and Muriel Spark, a British writer who also spent some of her life in Southern Rhodesia, were both shortlisted in 1981. In 2010, Mary Renault, a British-born writer who moved to South Africa with her life companion Julie Mullard in the nineteen-forties to escape the homophobia they experienced in England, was shortlisted along with Spark for the ‘Lost Booker Prize’, a special edition of the prize awarded to a novel from 1970, as the books published that year had not been eligible owing to a rules alteration.

More recently, Bernardine Evaristo, whose father was Nigerian, was shortlisted with Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, and went on to win the award, jointly with Margaret Atwood.

2020 Booker Prize shortlist

  • Diane Cook (USA), The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications)
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber)
  • Avni Doshi (USA), Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
  • Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/USA), The Shadow King (Canongate Books)
  • Douglas Stuart (Scotland/USA), Shuggie Bain (Picador, Pan Macmillan)
  • Brandon Taylor (USA), Real Life (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

Hilary Mantel, the first woman and first Briton to win the Booker Prize twice, for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and who was longlisted for the third, The Mirror and the Light, is perhaps the most surprising omission from the shortlist.

Featuring four writers of colour and four debut novels, this year’s selection has been described as the most diverse and ‘freshest’ Booker Prize shortlist in the prize’s history.

The winner of the 2020 Booker Prize will receive £50,000 (about R1 million) and can expect a career-altering boost in sales. The shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book.

This year’s panel of five judges is Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator.

Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says:

‘As judges we read 162 books, many of them conveying important, sometimes uncannily similar and prescient messages. The best novels often prepare our societies for valuable conversations, and not just about the inequities and dilemmas of the world—whether in connection with climate change, forgotten communities, old age, racism, or revolution when necessary—but also about how magnificent the interior life of the mind, imagination and spirit is, in spite of circumstance. The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience.

‘The novels on this year’s shortlist range in setting from an unusual child growing up in working-class Glasgow in the nineteen-eighties, to a woman coping with a postcolonial nightmare in Zimbabwe. Along the way we meet a man struggling with racism on a university campus, join a trek in the wilderness after an environmental disaster, eavesdrop on a woman coping with her ageing mother as they travel across India and in an exploration of female power discover how ordinary people rose up in ninteen-thirties Ethiopia to defend their country against invading Italians. It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well.’

The 2020 winner will be announced on Tuesday, 17 November.

The 2019 edition of the prize was won jointly by The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

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