Mex­i­can novelist be­comes first fe­male win­ner of £30,000 Fo­lio prize

The Guardian - - National - Alison Flood

The Mex­i­can novelist and es­say­ist Va­le­ria Luiselli has be­come the first wo­man to win the £30,000 Rath­bones Fo­lio prize since its in­cep­tion in 2013.

An­nounc­ing Luiselli’s “sin­gu­lar, teem­ing, ex­tra­or­di­nary” novel Lost Chil­dren Archive as win­ner of the prize last night, the chair of judges, Paul Far­ley, called on those watch­ing the event on­line to imag­ine the award cer­e­mony – “a podium, flutes of house pros­ecco, the din of as­sem­bled guests and the speeches” – af­ter the planned event at the Bri­tish Li­brary was can­celled be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Far­ley, an award-win­ning poet, was speak­ing in his back yard in Lan­cashire; Luiselli was in New York. In a recorded speech, Far­ley said there was “still a cause for cel­e­bra­tion”, de­scrib­ing Luiselli’s win­ning novel as a “gen­uinely orig­i­nal and bravura per­for­mance of a novel: a road trip, a doc­u­men­tary, a por­trait of a fam­ily and of the Amer­i­can border­lands, and a jour­ney into the idea of home and be­long­ing”.

Born in Mex­ico and now liv­ing in New York, Luiselli was in­spired to write Lost Chil­dren Archive by her work with young mi­grants on the Mex­ico-US border. The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, her third, and her first to be writ­ten in English, brings to­gether a fam­ily road trip from New York to the south­ern border with the sto­ries of Mex­i­can chil­dren try­ing to cross into the US.

Longlisted for the Booker last year, it beat ti­tles in­clud­ing Zadie Smith’s first short story col­lec­tion, Grand Union, and the For­ward prize win­ner Fiona Ben­son’s po­etry col­lec­tion Ver­tigo & Ghost to the Fo­lio award, which is open to all gen­res.

Luiselli said she was “happy, sad, con­fused and over­whelmed” at learn­ing she had won the prize. “First I was smil­ing, and then my pub­lisher in Lon­don said to me, ‘How I wish you were com­ing so we could toast and be to­gether’, and I started cry­ing,” she said. “Writ­ing is a soli­tary work, so to cel­e­brate with the team you worked with doesn’t hap­pen so of­ten. That was frus­trat­ing and sad but ev­ery­one in the world is feel­ing that same frus­tra­tion, at the fact we can­not come to­gether the way we’d like to.”

But the writer said that at the same time she was “just so deeply thank­ful that we can con­tinue, that we can say OK, we can still give a lit prize, and you know why? Be­cause we be­lieve in books as the echo of some­thing so much greater than us, and much greater than this mo­ment”.

Far­ley said that he and his fel­low judges, the nov­el­ists Nikita Lal­wani and Ross Raisin, had been unan­i­mous in their choice of Luiselli, with their gath­er­ings over the win­ter “to talk about noth­ing but books for a few hours over a drink al­ready … like idylls from a by­gone age”. Their fi­nal meet­ing, to de­cide on Luiselli as their win­ner, “took place on­line, with­out so much as an el­bow bump”, he added.

“Last year, when I was in­vited to be chair of the Rath­bones Fo­lio prize, my first duty was to of­fer a few words for a press re­lease. I heard my­self say­ing some­thing about how judg­ing through the au­tumn and win­ter would lead to an emerg­ing, some­time around the spring equinox, into the length­en­ing day­light with a win­ner. Things haven’t quite worked out like that … the room in the Bri­tish Li­brary where the Rath­bones Fo­lio prizewin­ner for 2020 would have been an­nounced this evening is cur­rently dark, along with the­atres, gal­leries, cin­e­mas and sta­di­ums ev­ery­where,” Far­ley said.

But he re­minded those watch­ing that there was “still a cause for cel­e­bra­tion”, and that “as daily life sud­denly feels cir­cum­scribed and un­cer­tain … I also think of how a novel, story or poem, now more than ever, can re­assert its abil­ity to trans­port and il­lu­mi­nate”.

The prize’s di­rec­tor, Minna Fry, said that it had been a chal­lenge to keep up with chang­ing re­al­i­ties “as the world col­lapses around us”, but the prize’s organisers were “de­ter­mined to find

‘My pub­lisher in Lon­don said, “How I wish we could toast and be to­gether”, and I started cry­ing’

Va­le­ria Luiselli Win­ner of Rath­bones Fo­lio prize

a way to go ahead, to cel­e­brate the eight bril­liant short­listed au­thors and to re­ward the book our judges con­sid­ered the very best of the year”.

Pre­vi­ous win­ners of the Fo­lio, which was set up af­ter the Booker prize was ac­cused of pri­ori­tis­ing read­abil­ity over artis­tic achieve­ment, in­clude Ray­mond An­trobus, Hisham Matar and Ge­orge Saun­ders.


Luiselli’s book was in­spired by her work with young mi­grants on the USMex­ico border Va­le­ria Luiselli’s Lost Chil­dren Archive was praised as ‘sin­gu­lar, teem­ing, ex­tra­or­di­nary’

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