Kenyan writer and academic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has become the first writer to be nominated for the International Booker Prize for both authoring and translating the same book, “The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi“. He is also the first nominee for a work originally written in an indigenous African language.
Until the 1970s, Thiong’o wrote in English, with novels like “A Grain of Wheat” and “Petals of Blood“, before choosing to write in his native tongue. Kenya’s government outlawed his work, and he was imprisoned for a year without charge in a maximum-security prison, where he published the first modern Gikuyu book, “Devil on the Cross“, on toilet paper.
Every year, the Booker Prize for Fiction is given to a single book that has been adapted and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. It aims to promote the publication and reading of high-quality imaginative works from around the world, as well as to give translators more credit. Novels and collections of short stories are also eligible for the award.
The £50,000 award is divided equally between the author and the translator for their contributions. Every shortlisted author and translator will earn an extra £1,000, taking the overall prize value to £62,000. A total of 125 books were considered by the judges this year.
The 2021 judging panel included Lucy Hughes-Hallett (chair); Aida Edemariam (journalist and writer); Neel Mukherjee (Man Booker-shortlisted novelist); Olivette Otele (Professor of the History of Slavery); and George Szirtes (poet, translator, and biographer).
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the judges, said: “In a year when we could scarcely leave our own houses, we judges have been crossing continents, transported by our reading. Every book we’ve read is unique. However, a theme does emerge – migration, the pain of it, but also the fruitful interconnectedness of the modern world.”
The list also includes a second African author: Senegalese author David Diop, for his novel, “At Night All Blood is Black“, about two Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French in World War I.
The 13 nominated books come from 12 different countries and have been translated into 11 different languages. The following is the complete list:
- I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
- At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis
- The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway
- The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (nominated for the fourth time)
- When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
- The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author
- The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken
- Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty
- An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from Germany by Jackie Smith
- Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
- In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale
- Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley
- The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti
The shortlist will be revealed on April 22, and the award winners, who will receive £50,000 divided equally between the author and the translator, will be released on June 2.
Photo Credit: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o