You are here

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

The fruit of the International Booker Prize judges’ lockdown is now ready for picking. With the announcement of their “Booker Dozen” longlist it is clear that the judges have not had much time for navel-gazing. As 125 submitted novels have now become 13, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and her fellows – Aida Edemariam, Olivette Otele, Neel Mukherjee and George Szirtes – have been hard at it. What they have come up with – or rather whittled down – is a selection of novels heterogeneous even by the standards of recent International Booker Prize years. It is hard to imagine that even the most well-informed and widely read amateur could have predicted even half of their longlist.

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 11 languages from 12 countries here and only one author, Can Xue, has been longlisted before. 

The list also sees nominations for a cluster of countries that aren’t regulars on the prize circuit – for Denmark (Olga Ravn, The Employees), Sweden (Andrzej Tichý, Wretchedness) Georgia (Nana Ekvtimishvili, The Pear Field) and, in a first for the International Booker Prize, a book from the Kenyan novelist written in Gikuyu and translated by the author (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, The Perfect Nine).

The gender split is a tidy six men to seven women and the age range runs from 34 (Olga Sofia Ravn, born 27 September 1986) to 83 (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, born 1938). If there is a common age theme (whether age in a novelist matters is something many novelists, including, recently, Kazuo Ishiguro often wonder about) it is that novelists born in the 1970s and 1980s have hit their stride – 9 of the 13 longlistees fall into that vintage.

Particularly heartening for anyone monitoring the health of the wider publishing infrastructure is that bold, innovative and free-thinking independent presses dominate. Only Éric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor (Picador) and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s The Perfect Nine (Vintage) come from the heartlands of traditional British literary publishing, all the others are from younger and smaller establishments. Even then, Pushkin Press and Fitzcarraldo editions are the only ones to pick up two nominations.

Of course, the International Booker prize is as much about translators as authors; theirs is, after all, a creative collaboration and the £50,000 prize money is split equally to reflect that. This year 8 out of 14 (Can Xue’s I Live in the Slums has two translators – Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) are women. Megan McDowell (The Dangers of Smoking in Bed) makes the longlist for the fourth time but for all the other translators this nomination is their first experience of being at the sharp end of the IBP, while in a new development for the prize, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o becomes the first author also to be the translator of their own work.

As for the authors’ routes to the prize. . . they are every bit as varied as one might expect. Can Xue, for example, comes from a family that was persecuted under chairman Mao but she has emerged as one of China’s most prominent exponents of experimental fiction. And although David Diop was born in Paris he grew up in Senegal and now teaches 18th-century literature at the University of Pau. Nana Ekvtimishvili studied philosophy and screenwriting in Georgia and Germany and to date has written more screenplays than novels. While Mariana Enríquez may have written four previous novels and run creative writing workshops but her day job is journalism in her native Argentina. 

Benjamin Labatut may have been born in Rotterdam and grown up in the Hague but he came of age in Buenos Aires and Lima and now lives in Chile. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, on the other hand, founded a Gikuyi-language journal, has written novels, essays, plays and children’s books and also pioneered a form of theatre that encourages spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. While Olga Sofia Ravn is primarily a poet she has also worked as a translator and literary critic and Jaap Robben learned his trade as an author of children’s books before his debut novel for adults, Birk, was published in 2014 and became a bestseller in the Netherlands. 

Judith Schalansky is immersed in every aspect of books; she is a book designer and publisher as well as a novelist and alone among her fellow nominees has the distinction of having an asteroid named after her (95247 Schalansky – not the most poetic of titles to be sure). Adania Shibli was born in Palestine but educated in London where she specialised in the visual effects of terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror”. While Maria Stepanova is another poet turned novelist: 2021 is a big year for her (made bigger by the IBP nomination) in that she has her poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals, and a collection of essays and poems called The Voice Over, also being published in English this year – “Isn’t it a bit of an overkill?” she has asked. 

Meanwhile Andrzej Tichý is another footloose novelist, being Czech-Polish but living in Malmö in Sweden where he has become a force in Nordic literature, and now beyond. Finally, Éric Vuillard is a successful film director as well as a novelist and in 2017 won France’s premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt.

On the surface there seems little to link the 13 longlistees but the judges clearly found something. According to Lucy Hughes-Hallett “a theme does emerge – migration, the pain of it, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world”. It may be a truism for an international prize but, she said, “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.” Creative energy and imagination are both tangible and hard to define adequately but with these authors and translators the books they have created are universal and surmount any language barrier.