Booker prize: only one British author on shortlist
Just one British author has made the shortlist for this year’s Booker prize: Nadifa Mohamed, who was chosen for her third novel The Fortune Men, a reimagining of the true story of a Somali seaman who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Wales.
The British-Somali novelist, who was born in Hargeisa in Somaliland and moved with her family to London at the age of four, was one of five British authors on the Booker longlist. But major names including the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, Francis Spufford and Rachel Cusk all failed to make the shortlist for the £50,000 award, which opened its doors to authors writing in English from anywhere in the world in 2014.
The Fortune Men is inspired by the real-life story of Mahmood Mattan, who was wrongly found guilty of the murder of a shopkeeper. “To be here, reaching out to a much wider audience about this novel that’s been so important to me, that’s taken almost 20 years of my life to get out there, is something that you don’t expect,” said Mohamed, who is the first British Somali novelist to be shortlisted.
Three Americans made the shortlist – Patricia Lockwood, for her debut novel No One is Talking About This, in which a woman known for her viral tweets is faced with a real-life tragedy; Maggie Shipstead, for her story of a vanished female aviator, Great Circle; and Richard Powers. Powers, who was shortlisted for his previous novel, the Pulitzer-winning The Overstory, was chosen for Bewilderment, in which a widowed astrobiologist builds simulated worlds as part of the search for life on other planets, while raising a troubled young son devoted to saving this one.
The Sri Lankan author Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, in which a young Tamil man travels north from Colombo for the funeral of his grandmother’s carer, and the South African Damon Galgut’s The Promise complete the lineup. Galgut, who has been shortlisted twice before, tells of how the vow made by a white South African woman before she dies, to give a house on the family farm to their black servant, fails to be kept.
“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 the historian Maya Jasanoff, chair of judges. “What I can say is that every book is judged on its own merits and judged against the other books on the list.”
Jasanoff was joined on the judging panel by the novelist Chigozie Obioma, who said the judges had not considered 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,” he said. “So if we don’t have many British writers, I think it’s just a coincidence.”
His fellow judge, the 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.”
In the past, publishers and authors have pushed for the Booker to reverse its rule change of 2014: before that date, the prize only allowed citizens from Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland to enter.
Director Gaby Wood said if the current rules were “strongly felt to be a problem”, the award would “listen to the reasons why”, but that “there are political as well as literary problems” with reverting to a Commonwealth framework. “I mean, it is essentially a colonial framework. I don’t know that this is the right time to do that, if there ever was a good time,” she said.