Booker Prize list: ‘moment of cultural change’

Diverse stories: Four authors on a longlist “packed with surprises and debuts”.

Are stories what make us uniquely human? The amazingly varied shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize for Fiction highlights the way a passion for narrative unites people worldwide.

In Avni Doshi’s novel Burnt Sugar, a young woman in the Indian city of Pune abandons her child to join a cult.

In Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, set during the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, a man rallies the local troops by impersonating the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie.

In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, a Zimbabwean country girl struggles to make a new life for herself in Harare.

These are just three of the 13 novels on the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize announced yesterday. Among the authors vying for one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards – and a cheque for £50,000 – are two established stars, Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler.

If Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light proves victorious, she will be the first writer ever to have won the prize three times.

But what is most notable about the shortlist is the number of little-known authors at the beginning of their careers. Eight of them – including Avni Doshi – have been nominated for their very first novels.

The others include Brandon Taylor, whose Real Life is about a young, gay black man at university in America’s Midwest, and C Pam Zhang, whose How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells of two orphaned Chinese children try to survive in 19th-Century America.

As Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, observes, “It is perhaps obvious that powerful stories can come from unexpected places and in unfamiliar forms; nevertheless, this kaleidoscopic list serves as a reminder.”

The historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari argues that our ability to invent stories has a significance far beyond offering entertainment or insights into the world. It is, he believes, the key skill that has given the human race primacy over other creatures.

“Fiction,” he writes, “has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively […]. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives.”

“Wolves and chimpanzees co-operate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can co-operate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.”

“That’s why humans rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

By fiction, Harari means not only books but “common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination”. Nations – as opposed to the land they occupy – only exist because their citizens believe they do.

Similarly, money would be worthless if we did not agree to assign it a value and buy and sell things with it. There would be no legal system if people had not dreamed up laws and persuaded others that they should abide by them. Companies like Google have a huge impact on our lives, and employ thousands of people, yet they are completely intangible.

Are stories what make us uniquely human?

The plot thickens

Some argue that all creatures engage in storytelling of some kind: that is how the knowledge needed for survival is passed on. A monkey showing its young how to climb a tree is constructing a type of narrative even if it lacks words. What makes us human is our superior intelligence and ability to build things, as well as, perhaps, one of our least attractive traits – killing for pleasure.

Triumphantly yes, say others. The earliest humans cemented their communities by coming together to tell stories around a fire. What sets us apart from animals is our powerful imagination, and the ability to share ideas with others – persuading them to see things from our point of view. This allows us to plan for the future and enlist help in realising our ambitions.

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite character from any book you have read?
  2. Is fiction a superior literary form to non-fiction?

Activities

  1. Before books were invented, stories were memorised and passed down from generation to generation. Ask an older person to tell you their favourite story, then write it down and illustrate it.
  2. On two sides of paper, write a story about someone whose life is changed by winning a prize.

Some People Say...

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Philip Pullman, English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that winning the Booker Prize can have an enormous impact on a writer’s career, elevating them to the world’s literary elite and hugely boosting their sales. Past winners include VS Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, William Golding, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, and Ian McEwan. Before Anna Burns won the 2018 prize with Milkman, it had sold 6,000 copies; over the next five weeks, it sold more than 300,000.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the Booker Prize has become too international. It was originally open to books by British, Irish, Commonwealth, and South African writers. Six years ago, however, the organisers decided to widen this to any book written in English. Some argue that this is unfair, since equivalent awards in the US – such as the Pulitzer Prize – are only open to Americans. Nine of the 13 authors on this year’s Booker shortlist are American.

Word Watch

Invasion of Ethiopia
Italy invaded Ethiopia under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. The country remained under Italian control until 1941, when it was liberated by the Allied forces.
Haile Selassie
Originally called Ras Tafari, he became a messianic figure for the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica. Three weeks ago, a statue of him in a London park was smashed by a crowd protesting about the current Ethiopian government.
Harare
The capital of Zimbabwe. Founded as a fort, and originally called Salisbury, it was renamed after the country gained independence in 1980.
Vying
Competing. From the word “to vie”, which originally meant to stake money in a card game.
Hilary Mantel
An English writer whose two previous Booker-winning novels are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The Mirror and the Light completes her trilogy about 16th-Century politician Thomas Cromwell.
Anne Tyler
An American writer whose books include The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Yuval Noah Harari
His most famous book, Sapiens, covers the history of the human race from the Stone Age to the 21st Century.
Sapiens
Relating to, or being recent humans (Homo sapiens).
Intangible
Unable to be touched; not having physical presence.

Subjects

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