It wasn’t that long ago we saw the novels that made the longlist for this prize, but with the winner being announced on 24 Nov, here we are already with the shortlist out!
The 2021 competition received a total of 115 eligible entries of which 17 titles made the initial longlist. The eight shortlisted titles include four novels, two genre-defying works that blend history, essay and fiction, one work of social history, and one collection of poetry. Six source languages are represented: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Polish, and Russian. The shortlist is dominated by independent publishers.
The judges had this to say:
“This powerful and eclectic shortlist spans a world of stories, from China and Japan to Russia, Rwanda and Algeria. It also salutes the formal boldness and originality of women’s writing around the world today, with books that range from innovative poetry and fiction of many kinds – from the fable to the saga – to works that take non-fiction narrative into exciting new territories. Together, the titles on the list celebrate the literary imagination without boundaries or constraints, served in every case by translations of the highest calibre.”
The full list of shortlisted titles, with their genre and descriptions, in alphabetical order, below:
Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, (Fiction/Feminism) translated from Japanese by David Boyd and Sam Bett (Picador)
Breasts and Eggs paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Japan and recounts the intimate journeys of three women as they confront oppressive mores and their own uncertainties on the road to finding peace and futures they can truly call their own.
It tells the story of three women: thirty-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko. Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations.
On another hot summer’s day ten years later, Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless.
Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.
Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile, (Fiction/Rwanda) translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Daunt Books Publishing)
Parents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.
It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.
A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.
Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses, (Essays/Experimental) translated from German by Jackie Smith (MacLehose Press)
A dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.
Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.
As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.
Maria Stepanova, In Memory of Memory, (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/history) translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
With the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.
In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a panorama of ideas and personalities and offers a new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.
Maria Stepanova, War of the Beasts and the Animals, (Poetry/Experimental) translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe Books)
One of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers, though high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged elsewhere.
War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as ‘The Body Returns’ commemorating the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.
This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, altering them so they appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, weaving together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.
Małgorzata Szejnert, Ellis Island: A People’s History, (Nonfiction/History) translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Scribe UK)
A landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.
While living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon and wonder about the people, journeys and stories that passed through there.
Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.
At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.
Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.
Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, (Fantasy/Science Fiction) translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)
In the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people.
Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.
Alice Zeniter, The Art of Losing, (Historical Fiction/Algeria) translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador)
Naïma has always known her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.
Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?
Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.
Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.
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So what do you think? The Lady of the Nile and The Art of Losing are the two that stand out for me, though I could easily be tempted by a few others as well.
Watch this space for the winner in two weeks time on 24 November!
Beautiful inspiration 🙏
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Not an easy decision – they all sound worthy of the prize.
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The Art of Losing stands out to me, as my Nonfiction November Ask the Expert post is asking for stories of people who go back to their homeland or ancestral homeland!
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Oh I do like the sound of that theme. That makes me think of one I have on the TBR, Hisham Matar’s The Return.
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It’s interesting to see that Maria Stepanova has two books in the shortlist – that;s very impressive indeed. I have a copy of In Memory of Memory, which Ali kindly sent me, so I’ll start there. The people’s history of Ellis Island also really appeals to me, I have to admit…
Yes, that is some feat to have two books of different genre by the same author competing against each other. I think the Ellis Island People’s history does sound fascinating, given the incredible and unusual source documents she had access to. An extraordinary gateway to a melange of different people, all seeking that same hope, for a new opportunity to thrive.
If these are all up to the standard of The Art of Losing, it’s a great list. The only one I can’t see myself trying is the Yan Ge. Fantasy AND Sci-Fi. Two pet hates in just one book!
Yes, I thought it was helpful to describe the genre alongside the language, because it’s such a genre diverse list. Fantasy sci fi not quite my thing either, but interested to see how popular it is and great to see chinese women in translation becoming available in English. I must get myself The Art of Losing! TBR in danger of toppling!
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Indeed. What to do with a Toppling TBR?
I’ve not read any others from this list since we last chatted in the comments about it, but they still all sound interesting to me, and I’m curious to see who’ll win.
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