Once upon a time there was a storyteller

Booker Prize: 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 story-telling 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 pretending to be 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.

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.”

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.

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.

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite character from any book you have read?

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.

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?
Most agree 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?
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.
Rallies
Brings together again to continue fighting.
Exiled
Sent away and banned from one’s native country, usually for political reasons or as punishment.
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.
Shortlist
A list of people who have been judged the best for a job or prize, made from a longer list of people considered, and from which one person will be chosen.
Vying
Competing for.
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.
Primacy
Being first; the most important.
Collectively
As a group; as a whole.
Narrative
A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
Cemented
Made stronger.

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