Tuesday, March 30, 2021 5:36 pm
By Nehru Odeh
One of Africa’s foremost novelists and author of the critically acclaimed novel, Weep Not Child, Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has been nominated for the International Booker Prize as both author and translator of the novel in verse, The Perfect Nine.
This is indeed no mean feat as it makes him the first nominee writing in an indigenous African language. The 83-year-old Kenyan and perennial Nobel favourite is among 13 authors nominated for the award for best translated fiction, a £50,000 prize split evenly between author and translator.
The judges described The Perfect Nine as “a magisterial and poetic tale about women’s place in a society of gods”, and written in the Bantu language Gikuyu. And it tells the story of nine sisters as they journey to find a magical cure for their youngest sibling, who cannot walk
Thiong’o is famous for novels such as Weep Not Child, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood in English until the 1970s, when he resolved to write in his mother tongue. His work was banned by Kenya’s government and he was detained without trial for a year in a maximum-security prison, where he wrote the first modern Gikuyu 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 was I not detained before, when I wrote in English? It was there that I made my decision. I don’t know if I’d have broken through the psychological block if not forced by history.”
The chair of the judges, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, said that another theme emerged from the 125 books submitted for the prize this year: “migration, the pain of it, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world”.
“Not all writers stay in their native countries,” she said. “Many do, and write wonderful fiction about their home towns. 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.”
As in previous years, the longlist is again dominated by small presses, with Fitzcarraldo Editions, publisher of previous winner Olga Tokarczuk, nominated twice for Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory and Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail. Pushkin Press is also nominated twice, for 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 six-book shortlist will be announced on 22 April, and the winner on 2 June.
The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist is as follows:
I Live in the Slums by 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).
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 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 Dutch by David Doherty (World Editions).
An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith (Quercus)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).