By Prisca Sam-Duru
Africa’s literary colossus, Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, made history on Tuesday, when he was longlisted among twelve other authors for the 2021 International Booker Prize, as both author and translator of the same book, ‘The Perfect Nine’, as well as the first nominee writing in an indigenous African Language.
With his nomination, Prof Wa Thiong’o, an 83-year-old renowned author of “Weep Not Child”, becomes the first nominee writing in an indigenous African language. A perennial Nobel Prize favourite, the Africa’s literary giant is among 13 authors nominated for the award for best translated fiction, a £50,000 prize split evenly between author and translator.
‘The Perfect Nine’ which tells the story of nine sisters as they journey to find a magical cure for their youngest sibling, who cannot walk, according to the judges, is “a magisterial and poetic tale about women’s place in a society of gods”, and written in the Bantu language Gikuyu.
In addition to his critically acclaimed novel, ‘Weep Not Child’, Prof Thiong’o is also famous for novels such as ‘A Grain of Wheat’ and ‘Petals of Blood’ which written 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 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”, he told the Guardian In 2006, the same tale he shared with some of us(journalists), when he headlined Ake Arts and Book festival during one of its editions in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
This year’s International Booker longlist spans four continents, 11 languages and 12 countries, and many of its works also cross genres.
A good number of the longlisted books explore disability. For instance, Thiong’o’s novel-in-verse narrates the compelling tale of nine sisters journey to find a magical cure for their youngest sibling, who cannot walk. Georgian film-maker Nana Ekvtimishvili’s debut ‘The Pear Field’ is set in a forgotten orphanage for disabled children in post-Soviet Georgia, while Dutch author Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother follows a 13-year-old boy who is left to care for his physically and mentally disabled older brother.
Chair of the judges, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, disclosed 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, adding, “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.
‘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); are some of the 2021 International Booker Prize longlist.
On the judging panel with Hughes-Hallett are 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.