By Nehru Odeh
Tomb of sand, a novel written by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell, has won the 2022 International Booker Prize. The £50,000 prize will be split between author and translator equally.
The prize is awarded every year to a translated work of fiction published in the U.K. or Ireland. It is run alongside the Booker Prize for English-language fiction. It was set up to boost the profile of fiction in other languages, which accounts for only a small share of books published in Britain and to salute the often unacknowledged work of literary translators.
However, what makes this year’s competition unique is that Tomb of Sand is the first book originally written in any Indian language to win the prize and the first novel translated from Hindi to be recognised by the award.
Set in northern India, the novel tells the story of an 80-year-old woman, who slips into a deep depression when her husband dies, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. The woman travels to Pakistan to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluates what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist.
The book is engaging, funny and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries – whether between religions, countries or genders.
Frank Wynne, chair of judges for this year’s prize and the first translator to chair the judging panel, called the book “extraordinarily funny and fun”.
He went on to describe it as: “Enormously engaging and charming and funny and light, despite the various subjects it’s dealing with … a perfectly decent beach read for absolutely everyone.”
Wynne said the judging panel – consisting of author and academic Merve Emre, writer and lawyer Petina Gappah, writer, comedian and TV, radio and podcast presenter Viv Groskop, and translator and author Jeremy Tiang – had a “passionate debate”, but “when it came down to it, this was overwhelmingly the book chosen by the judges”.
Shree is the author of three novels and several short story collections, although Tomb of Sand is the first of her books to be published in the UK. Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator living in Vermont, US, who has translated a number of works from Hindi and Urdu literature.
Wynne said Rockwell’s translation was “stunningly realised, the more so because so much of the original depends on wordplay, on the sounds and cadences of Hindi”.
Tomb of Sand is published by small independent publisher Tilted Axis Press; this year marks not just its first International Booker win, but also its first longlisting and shortlisting.
Tilted Axis Press was set up by Deborah Smith, who won the first iteration of the revamped International Booker prize, alongside Han Kang, for her translation of Kang’s The Vegetarian in 2016. She used her winnings from the prize to found the press.
Wynne said that small independent publishers had done “enormous work in bringing translated work to people. There is still more to be done. There is still a sense that publishing translations is difficult. It’s no more difficult than any other books.”
He said he hoped that Tomb of Sands’s win would encourage more translations of books from non-European languages.
“Despite the fact that Britain has a very long relationship with the Indian subcontinent, very few books are translated from Indian languages, from Hindi, from Urdu, from Malayalam, from Bengali,” said Wynne. “I think that’s a pity and I think, in part, it happens because a subsection of Indian writers write in English, and perhaps we feel that we already have the Indian writers we need but unfortunately there are many, many Indian writers of whom we’re unaware simply because they have not been translated.”
This year, the judges considered 135 books, with a record number of submissions received. The other books on the shortlist included The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft; the pair have won the prize previously.
Also shortlisted was Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur from Korean; A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian; Heaven by Mieka Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd from Japanese; and Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro, translated by Frances Riddle from Spanish.
The 2021 prize was won by At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis. It marked the first time a French novelist had won the award.