2020 Booker Prize shortlist is more diverse than it's ever been

2020 Booker Prize shortlist is more diverse than it’s ever been


This year’s Booker Prize is the most diverse lineup in its history, with four writers of colour among its six shortlists. All but one writer hails from the US, or holds joint US citizenship, with Tsitsi Dangarembga hailing from Zimbabwe. This year’s list also includes four debuts from Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, Douglas Stuart and Brandon Taylor. 

The six shortlisted books were selected from a total of 162. This year’s shortlist sees the absence of big names like Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler and Colum McCann.

The shortlist was announced virtually on Tuesday after judges assessed 13 long-listed novels published in the UK or Ireland between October 2019 and September 2020. In 2014, the Prize opened up its eligibility to any writer writing in English and published in the UK to compete for the award. At the time, the changes faced widespread criticism from the British publishing industry, as people believed it would lead to US writers dominating the prize.

Since 2014, only two authors from the US have taken out the Booker; Paul Beatty in 2016 for “The Sellout” and George Saunders the following year for “Lincoln in the Bardo”. 

Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, told The Guardian that the nationality of a writer is irrelevant. 

 “Whether it is a problem that is for others to say, but we don’t think of it as a problem. We think of it as being for readers, and readers don’t check passports.”

“No one wins the Booker prize because of who they are. A book wins because of what it does,” she said. “What has transpired is a testament to the judges’ faith in – among other things – first fictions: they have found these writers to have much to say, and found them to have said it in a way that became even richer on a second reading.”

“Every year, judging the Booker prize is an act of discovery,” Wood added. “What’s out there, how can we widen the net, how do these books seem when compared to one another, how do they fare when reread? These are questions judges always ask themselves, and each other.” 

Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is shortlisted for “This Mournable Body”, a sequel to her 1988 novel “Nervous Conditions”. The novel follows a woman trying build her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe, and tackles issues of psychological trauma, colonialism and the capitalist impact of modern ecotourism. Dangarembga, 61, who is also a celebrated filmmaker, made headlines in July when she was arrested in the capital, Harare during a peaceful protest against government corruption and is due to appear in court later this week.

Maaza Mengiste, 46, who holds both Ethiopian and American citizenship, is shortlisted for her second novel, The Shadow King, a story which centres on the citizens who rose up during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Mengiste fled her birth country at the age of four and went on to study creative writing at New York University. She is the first Ethiopian writer to make the Booker shortlist.

Brooklyn-based writer, Diane Cook is shortlisted for her book, The New Wilderness – a story that examines the mother-daughter relationship through the inquisitions poised by climate change and environmental disasters. The dystopian novel was published by independent publishers Oneworld, who also published previous Booker Prize winning novels: Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and Beatty’s “The Sellout.”

US born Dubai-based writer of Indian heritage, Avni Doshi is shortlisted for her book Burnt Sugar; a story that also explores the complex dynamics between mothers and daughters through a tale of betrayal, trauma and reconciliation.

Brandon Taylor’s first book, Real Life is a campus novel that follows the story of a queer black postgraduate student facing racism and homophobia in a predominately white institution. In March, when his book was published, Taylor told The Guardian that in trying to write this book, he was “centering my own experiences and pursuing with a really intense focus and conviction the stuff that spoke to me. Because I could have written this book to be more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would’ve been a worse book.”

Real Life is published by Daunt Books Originals, a London-based independent imprint that was only founded in February this year.

Glasgow born Scottish – American author Douglas Stuart worked on his first novel, Shuggie Bain, for over ten years. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Stuart tells Cressida Leyshon “In many ways I’m always writing about loneliness. I began to imagine what it might be like to grow up there as a young gay man in the nineties, pre-Internet.”

Shuggie Bain follows story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a young boy crippled by loneliness, living in decrepit public housing in Glasgow during the 1980s.

In the Washington Post, Bethanne Patrick described the book as “ a masterpiece… “Shuggie Bain” gives voice to the kind of helpless, hopeless love that children can feel towards broken parents. Shuggie and his mother live in an 1980’s Glasgow subsidized-housing apartment tower, where she drinks and he explores his sexuality under circumstances that allow for scant imagination about a different future for either.”

Ghanaian-born publisher editor, writer and broadcaster Margaret Busby was this year’s Chair of judges. She was the first black woman publisher in Britain when she co-founded Allison and Busby in 1967. She told The Guardian that the judges “…were not conscious of if someone was British or not, we were looking at the books. In the end we ended up judging on the basis of what we thought of the books we were given, not on nationalities.”

“The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different,” Busby said . “It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well.”

“The best novels often prepare our societies for valuable conversations, and not just about the inequities and dilemmas of the world – whether in connection with climate change, forgotten communities, old age, racism, or revolution when necessary – but also about how magnificent the interior life of the mind, imagination and spirit is, in spite of circumstance. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience.”

This year’s judges included Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Lemn Sissay and Emily Wilson. The Booker is now in its 51st year and is moulding towards the contemporary climate of political and cultural representation. In its first 43 years of operation, only two people of colour had served as Booker judges, out of more than 200.

Busby expressed the importance “for there to be opportunities to see culture and creativity from different perspectives.”

“That’s not to say that under the auspices of the Booker, brilliant decisions have not been made about excellent literature for decades,” she said. “Each of us makes judgments through the prism of who we are and what we have learned or internalised. That’s why diversity has always been important. Diversity is reality. The scope of this year’s books has allowed us to luxuriate in skilful storytelling and to be surprised by what unheard voices have to articulate.”

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Publisher and editor Margaret Busby – she was the UK’s youngest and first Black woman publisher when she co-founded Allison & Busby. She also compiled the groundbreaking anthology Daughters of Africa in 1992 📖 • • Why does Busby think diverse voices and stories are important? “Because otherwise we’re not tapping into the richness of information, of point of view, everything that makes life interesting. So that you don’t only get one perspective all the time, with everything filtered through the usual gatekeepers—we know who they are, whether in London, New York or wherever… Other voices need to get a look-in, not just those that already have the power. “ #inspiration #wellreadblackgirl #Icon

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The Booker Prize winner will be announced on 17 November in an event broadcast by BBC Arts from London’s Roundhouse venue. 

Photo Credit: Booker Prize

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