Booker Prize: Why this year’s shortlist is global and far-reaching

Writers shortlisted for 2021 Booker Prize

By Nehru Odeh

Who wins this year’s prestigious Booker Prize? That indeed is what is in the mind of every literary buff across the globe, as the announcement of the six writers shortlisted for the prize has triggered a literary frenzy of sorts.

Six writers have been shortlisted for the £50,000 prize, the winner of which will be announced on 3 November. However, a remarkable thing about this year’s shortlist is that it has the face of a global award, as it veers away from the Commonwealth, which it had been restricted to until lately. In the past, publishers and authors have demanded that the Booker reverse its rule change of 2014: before that date, the prize only allowed citizens from Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland to enter.

Among the shortlisted writers are three Americans, one South African, One Sri Lankan and, conspicuously last year’s one British. The six novels shortlisted for the award are: A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Sri Lankan);The Promise by Damon Galgut (South African); No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (US); The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (British/Somali);Bewilderment by Richard Powers (US); Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (US). Last year, the sole British representative on the shortlist, Douglas Stuart, went on to win. But will that feat be repeated this year?

Announcing the shortlist, chair of the judges, Maya Jasanoff, said “Our shortlist is global – in their authors and their settings – which feels transporting in a year when so many of us have been confined to home …. And our shortlist engages with matters of life and death, which feels quite poignant and pertinent in this catastrophic year.

“Ultimately, we have to lose some great titles along with elevating some other great titles. We’re really just looking at it book by book by book, and trying to make the most reasoned and grounded and deeply felt decisions that we can,” said historian Maya Jasanoff, who chairs the judges. “What I can say is that every book is judged on its own merits and judged against the other books on the list.”

Chigozie Obioma, writer and one of the judges also said they did not consider the nationality of authors when reading their books. “We look at not just what the writers are saying, but how they are saying it, and therefore nationalities do not really matter. What matters is what the writer has brought to the page, the vision that they have and how they have realised it,” said Obioma. “So if we don’t have many British writers, I think it’s just a coincidence.”

Another judge, actor Natascha McElhone, agreed. “It just wasn’t part of the discussion. It was about the writing, how compelling the story was, how relevant it was, whether it opened our hearts and minds, whether it taught us something we weren’t already familiar with, whether it was original, unique, maverick, interesting, funny.”

Still, giving another reason why this year’s prize is global, Jasanoff added: “I find it interesting that there’s so much attention being paid to the passports held by authors when literature is something that has always crossed borders, and continues to cross borders in striking ways. I find it pretty remarkable within the 21st century that people are talking about the former British empire as an appropriate container within which to think about literature.”

Jasanoff, whose judging panel also includes writer and editor Horatia Harrod and the writer and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said that the six novels chosen “share an interest in how individuals are both animated and constrained by forces larger than themselves”.

“Some are acutely introspective, taking us into the mind of a Tamil man tracing the scars of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and an American woman unplugging from the internet to cope with a family crisis. Some enter communities in the throes of historical transformation: the Cardiff docklands in the early years of British decolonisation, and the veld around Pretoria in the last years of apartheid. And some have global sweep, following a mid-century aviator in her attempt to circumnavigate the planet, and a present-day astrobiologist raising a son haunted by climate change,” she said. “While each book is immersive in itself, together they are an expansive demonstration of what fiction is doing today.”

The shortlisted writers and what their novels are about:

Anuk Arudpragasam – A Passage North. In his second novel, the Sri Lankan author explores the lasting effects of the trauma and violence of his country’s civil war, and a past love affair. “We felt that he was taking on with great seriousness this question of, how can you grasp the present, while also trying to make sense of the past?” said judge Horatia Harrod.

Damon Galgut – The Promise. The South African writer’s ninth novel follows a white family over the decades from the Apartheid era. “The ultimate question that the novel asks is, is justice – true justice – possible in this world?” Obioma said. “If it is, then what might that look like?”

Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This. This is the first novel by the American poet and memoirist. It follows a woman catapulted to social media fame, told using what Booker judge Rowan Williams described as the “unpromising medium of online prattle”. When reality impinges on this online existence, it ends up being a story “with intense, emotional energy and truthfulness”, he said.

Nadifa Mohamed – The Fortune Men. Mohamed was born in Somaliland and raised in Britain, and her book is set in the docks of post-war Cardiff Bay. It fictionalises the story of Mahmood Mattan, a real Somali sailor who was wrongly accused of murder. “This is a story about the past that has great significance for the present,” said judging chair Maya Jasanoff. 

Richard Powers – Bewilderment. The US author won the Pulitzer for his last novel The Overstory. Here, a widowed astrobiologist turns to experimental treatments to help his nine-year-old son with additional needs – and take him to other planets. It is “a clarion call for us all to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo,” judge Natascha McElhone said.

Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle. Another American author, Shipstead’s third novel intertwines the stories of a daring post-war female pilot and a 21st century Hollywood actress who is trying to rescue her reputation by making a film about her. It “speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraints, particularly in women’s lives,” Jasanoff said.