[The JRB Daily] 2021 International Booker Prize longlist announced—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o becomes first person to be nominated as both author and translator

The thirteen novels longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize have been revealed.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has made history this year, becoming the first writer to be nominated for the prestigious prize as both author and translator. His book The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi is also the first nominated work in an indigenous African language.

The judges said of The Perfect Nine, which Ngũgĩ translated from Gikuyu:

‘Ngugi masterfully sings us through an origin story written in verse. This book is a magisterial and poetic tale about women’s place in a society of Gods. It is also about disability and how expectations shape and determine characters’ spiritual anchoring.’

Also on the longlist this year is At Night All Blood is Black by French–Senegalese writer David Diop (translated by Anna Mocschovakis), which the judges described as:

‘Horrifying, cruel and continually present in the action it describes, it is partly a personal report from the front in the First World War by a traumatised Senegalese soldier. Like nothing else in terms of tone and power, it is a blinding revelation, an incantatory work of kinship and terror.’

The International Booker Prize celebrates ‘the finest translated fiction from around the world’. It is awarded every year for a single book translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Both novels and short story collections are eligible. The contributions of both the author and translator are given equal recognition, with the two sharing the £50,000 (about R1 million) prize money. Each shortlisted author and translator will receive £1,000.

The prize ‘aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality works of imagination from all over the world, and to give greater recognition to the role of translators’. From the prize:

‘Often, previous lists have shown certain predilections—a language dominates, a genre, an age-range of authors, even a gender—but the spread this year is notable. Only two languages—French and Spanish—appear twice, and even then only one of those four nominations is for an author born and bred in either France or Spain (Éric Vuillard), the other novelists have taken less direct routes. There are eleven languages from twelve countries here and only one author, Can Xue, has been longlisted before.’

This year the judges considered 125 books. The longlist was selected by a panel consisting of cultural historian and novelist Lucy Hughes-Hallett (chair); journalist and writer Aida Edemariam; Man Booker shortlisted novelist Neel Mukherjee; Professor of the History of Slavery Olivette Otele; and poet, translator and biographer George Szirtes.

2021 International Booker Prize longlist

  • I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press
  • The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from 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 Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker
  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions
  • Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions
  • An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press
  • Minor Detail by 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
  • Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories
  • The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

Judge Lucy Hughes-Hallett says:

‘In a year when we could scarcely leave our own houses, we judges have been crossing continents, transported by our reading. Every book we’ve read is unique. However a theme does emerge—migration, the pain of it, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world.

‘Not all writers stay in their native countries. Many do, and write wonderful fiction about their hometowns. But our longlist includes a Czech/Polish author’s vision of a drug-fuelled 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, and so do books, refusing to stay put in rigidly separated categories. We’ve 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.

‘Thanks to those remarkable books, and to their translators, we’ve been freed to explore the world. We hope this prize will inspire many more readers to follow us.’

The shortlist for the prize will be announced on 22 April 2021, and the winner announced on 2 June 2021 in a virtual celebration from Coventry in the United Kingdom.

Last year’s winners were Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Michele Hutchison for The Discomfort of Evening.

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