You are here

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s double first

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s double first

It is always hard to judge which aspect of a newly-announced longlist will catch the public’s attention. With the International Booker prize longlist reveal it is clear that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s nomination is the one that intrigues most at this early stage. Not only does Thiong’o become the first author in the prize’s history to translate his own book but The Perfect Nine is the first longlisted book to be written in Gikuyu or any indigenous African language. This double first has ensured headlines, not just across Africa, but globally wherever literature is valued. Not that it is Thiong’o’s first time; he was one of the contenders for the 2009 iteration of the prize when it was an oeuvre rather than an individual book that was considered (Alice Munro won that year). This is early days though and as the weeks progress other writers on the longlist will be thrust further into the spotlight.

It seems that being a Booker Prize winner lays you open to some stark questions. At least that’s what Douglas Stuart found recently when he was asked point blank if Shuggie Bain is “the saddest book ever”? Ever? To his credit, rather than suffering a fit of the vapours, Stuart engaged with the question. “I don’t think it’s the saddest book ever, but it might be among the saddest,” he said. “In literature, hope is often telegraphed from a thousand miles away, and in real life hope is just getting up each day and taking another run at it.” He went on to add the he approached the task of writing from an interesting perspective. Of course all writers want a readership and have one somewhere in the back of their mind as they work, but for Stuart the motivation was clear: “I wrote the book for the characters and not for the reader – it’s what I was trying to tell them and not to tell people about them. I felt if I started to make choices about what a reader would want – especially a middle-class reader – then I would be denying the characters their dignity.” The irony being that his characters can’t say if he delivered what they wanted. His readers, however, can express approbation – and have – even some middle-class ones.

Approbation couldn’t be much clearer than the work just finished by a group of Glasgow School of Art graduates. They have painted a huge mural inspired by Shuggie Bain on the wall of Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom which shows a pirouetting figure accompanied by a line from the book: “You’ll not remember the city you were too wee, but there’s dancing. All kinds of dancing.” A thoroughly chuffed Stuart called the unveiling “one of the proudest moments of my life”.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Salman Rushdie’s Booker prize win with Midnight’s Children and the author has been reflecting on the novel’s longevity. “I wanted to write a novel of vaulting ambition, a high-wire act with no safety net, an all-or-nothing effort,” he says, but high-risk strategies are more likely to fail than to succeed. So “For a writer in his mid-70s, the continued health of a book published in his mid-30s is, quite simply, a delight. This is why we do what we do: to make works of art that, if we are very lucky, will endure.” The passage of four decades has not, however, brought the changes to India that Rushdie hoped for. “India is no longer the country of this novel. . . I had in mind an arc of history moving from the hope – the bloodied hope, but still the hope – of independence to the betrayal of that hope in the so-called Emergency, followed by the birth of a new hope. India today, to someone of my mind, has entered an even darker phase than the Emergency years.” He lists assaults on women, an authoritarian state, random arrests, religious fanaticism as contemporary malaises and “these things encourage a kind of despair”. It’s a bleak analysis but for Rushdie “right now, in India, it’s midnight again”.

Busy, busy Bernardine Evaristo has yet another project on the go. She has been working with the poetry publisher Bloodaxe Books and Newcastle University on a new award, the James Berry Poetry Prize for emerging Black and minority ethnic poets. The prize is named in honour of James Berry, the black writer who won the National Poetry Competition back in 1981, and three winning poets will each receive £1,000 and have their debut collection published by Bloodaxe. Evaristo has been working with an inclusivity specialist, Nathalie Teitler, to fine-tune the prize; the pair previously collaborated on the “Complete Works” mentoring scheme which has ushered BAME poets into three Bloodaxe anthologies. Now that the prize’s wheels are in motion Evaristo might, just might, be able to get back to her own next book.