Kenyan novelist’s ‘The Perfect Nine’ is first work written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has become the first writer to be nominated for the International Booker prize as both author and translator of the same book, and the first nominee writing in an indigenous African language.
The 83-year-old Kenyan and perennial Nobel favourite is among 13 authors nominated for the award for best translated fiction, a £50,000 prize split evenly between author and translator. Thiong’o is nominated as writer and translator of The Perfect Nine, a novel-in-verse described by the judges as “a magisterial and poetic tale about women’s place in a society of gods”, and written in the Bantu language Gikuyu.
Thiong’o wrote novels like ‘A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood’ 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 2006 he told the Guardian: “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.”
This year’s International Booker longlist spans 11 languages and 12 countries, and many of its works also cross genres. These include Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, a “nonfiction novel” that focuses on moments of scientific discovery and features Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. German author Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses is a history of lost objects. And Russia’s Maria Stepanova is nominated for her history of her family, In Memory of Memory.
Acclaimed in Russia, Stepanova’s memoir is her English debut; likewise, French author David Diop is nominated for his English debut At Night All Blood is Black, which was shortlisted for 10 major prizes in France and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Olga Ravn, one of Denmark’s most celebrated novelists, is nominated for The Employees, written as a series of witness statements from workers on a spaceship.
Chinese author Can Xue is the only author to have been nominated before; this time she is listed for her short story collection I Live in the Slums. And Megan McDowell is the only previous translator nominee, picked for the fourth time with her translation of Argentinian author Mariana Enríquez’s short stories, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.
French author Éric Vuillard is nominated for The War of the Poor, which is just 80 pages long, while Czech-Polish author Andrzej Tichý is nominated for Wretchedness, a short novel written in Swedish over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences.
Thiong’o’s novel-in-verse sees 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. And 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.
Benjamín Labatut, author of When We Cease to Understand the World.
Benjamín Labatut, author of When We Cease to Understand the World. Photograph: © Juana Gómez
The chair of the judges, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, said 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. “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.
Hughes-Hallett is joined on the judging panel by 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.