Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021

From that longlist of 49 novels here, nominated by libraries from all around the world, today a shortlist of six novels was announced. 

Bernardine Evaristo Valeria Luiselli Colum McCann Ocean Vuong Colson Whitehead

I’ve only read one, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and unfortunately despite the lyrical language, it wasn’t for me. I did recently read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and have heard good things about The Nickel Boys.

I would love to read Lost Children Archive having read her long essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (a nonfiction narrative of Luiselli’s stay in NY and decision to assist child migrants who travel alone to the US to fill in the 40 question survey they must respond to within 21 days of arrival) in preparation to read her novel. And Girl, Woman, Other is another I’ll get around to eventually.

Colum McCann is an author I have enjoyed in the past, but a 500 page novel wading into the Israeli Palestinian narrative by focusing on two families who lost daughters and develop a friendship, sits uncomfortably, described by Susan Abulharwa as a colonialist misstep in commercial publishing.

Here is what the judges had to say about these six titles:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)(nominated by Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia, Spain)

Lost Children Archive“Two journeys—one of countless migrant children making their way up from Central America and Mexico to the US border, and another of a fragile young family taking a road trip down from New York to the Mexican border—come together in this imaginative, heartfelt, and entirely original novel.

Interweaving works of literature, music, maps, photographs, and other documents with multiple narrative voices, Luiselli has composed a masterpiece that is at once an exhilarating, lyrical road novel and an unsparing meditation on dislocation, remembering, and storytelling. Timely and timeless, Lost Children Archive is an immersive work that transports, unsettles, and ultimately elevates the reader.”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (UK)(nominated by libraries in Germany and Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021“A magnificent book fuelled by its own unique energy – one which catapults the novel form into an original, exhilarating direction. Twelve women’s lives are vigorously revealed, each character given an individual chapter of their own. And yet within these chapters Evaristo skilfully weaves all of their worlds together.

The result: an astonishing tapestry of women’s lives – flaws and all – and of the wide-ranging and spirited experiences that have made them who they are. A bravura feat of storytelling by a writer at the top of her game, which vividly celebrates the voices of intergenerational black British women in contemporary times.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (nominated by libraries in Canada, Mexico and the USA)

Fitzcarraldo Editions Translated Fiction“Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a ferocious novel that challenges and astonishes in equal measure. It portrays the most painful margins of a Mexican underworld of poverty and corruption, a universe dominated by a merciless violence that is deeply embedded in the community and in the actions and thoughts of its inhabitants, almost obscuring ant trace of empathy and humanity.

The novel’s hyperrealist language displays striking power, a direct, brutal and incisive energy that transports you headlong into the centre of a hurricane where there seems to be little hope or redemption. Sophie Hughes’ English translation succeeds in transmitting the expressive force and richness of Melchor’s Spanish. It is a novel that does not give you a break and that drags you in its verbal current, so torrential and intense, towards the darkest entrails of humankind, where the shadows live. An extraordinary book.”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Ireland) (nominated by South Dublin Libraries, Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist“They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories”— Exploring Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin’s friendship and peace activism after the killings of their young daughters, Colin McCann’s novel Apeirogon, true to its title, ambitiously presents “a countably infinite number of sides” in its expansive exploration of injustice, loss, relationality and resilience.

Its visionary mapping of displacements and returns, as well as its inventive structure of fragments and blank spaces open up alternative narrative pathways for the histories and futures of Palestine and Israel, powerfully suggesting that “Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.”

On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese/American)(nominated by libraries in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland & the USA)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong“Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is characterised by the same lyricality and powerful use of language he employs in his poetry. The novel takes the form of an extended letter.

A young Vietnamese America man writes to his mother sharing his story and revealing how his story’s inseparably bound to hers. As Vuong’s narrator finds his voice he entertains questions of class and ethnicity, language and sexuality. It’s a captivating and tender story shot through with moments of pure, unsettling humanity. Vuong wants his readers to see that even the most mundane of moments can be briefly gorgeous and transformative.”

The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead (American) (nominated by libraries in Belgium and the USA)

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead“Colson Whitehead’s emerged as a leading chronicler of African-American experience with The Underground Railroad in 2016. Where The Underground Railroad was expansive in its imagination, The Nickel Boys returns to the traumas of African-American history with a very different literary style. Set in a juvenile institution in Florida – the ‘Nickel Academy’ – in 1960s, Whitehead here writes with a pared-down narrative and prose style, tracing the scars of the past in the lives of the present. The writing is spare, clean, and direct; and the result is a novel that not only casts light on a dark moment of African-American history, but also speaks to stories of institutional abuse everywhere.”

The winner will be announced on 20 May 2021 as part of the opening day programme of the International Literature Festival Dublin.

Have you read any of these or do you plan to?

TransAtlantic Journeys, Real and Imagined

Colum McCann’s latest novel did well to live up to my raised expectations and has now become a symbol of a path on the journey of this blog itself. I was always keen to read McCann’s next novel, after the hype of Let the Great World Spin, which I enjoyed although I wouldn’t class it as one of my all-time favourites. TransatlanticHowever, TransAtlantic became a “must read” after I received a hardback copy in the post, in recognition of one of my reviews being profiled on The Guardian’s online book pages, where I occasionally post extracts of reviews and comment under the pseudonym RedBirdFlies. The review that was acknowledged, was Zadie Smith’s NW and you can read what the Guardian had to say about it here.

So thank you to The Guardian Books team for sending me a copy of TransAtlantic, a welcome surprise and wonderful to know that a few of these “word by words” have flown the page and landed elsewhere to an appreciative audience.

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs-Newfoundland 14 June 1919

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs Newfoundland 14 June 1919

TransAtlantic is a hybrid novel (is that an oxymoron?), in which McCann takes real historical figures, all of whom made a transatlantic journey which subsequently had a bearing on the story of Ireland and re-imagines a part of their story, interspersing the narrative with fictional characters.

He starts with Alcock and Brown in 1919, who ditched their bomb carriers, modifying the Vickers Vimy by taking war out of flight and adding more fuel than had ever been strapped to an aircraft in their attempt to cross the Atlantic non-stop.

The names sounded familiar, but I didn’t know as I began to read who they were, so looked them up and was startled to see Alcock’s date of birth and then death, the same year in which he makes this attempt – are they going to make it I asked? And is it cheating to look up a historical figure in the midst of reading a novel? Brown dies many years later, so I settle back into reading, content they are going to make it. Until I read that Alcock couldn’t swim.

Their preparation and journey are captured by a journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie, who reappear in later chapters, two women whose family have made the crossing many times, the first family member to do so Lily, inspired by meeting Frederick Douglass, who we meet in the second chapter. In a chance encounter with Brown, Lottie asks if he will carry a letter written by her mother to an address in Cork. A letter that survives this entire novel.

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass visits Ireland while in the throw of becoming a free man, he is spreading the word against slavery, a young abolitionist, a charismatic presence, in awe of how he is received, as an equal, yet disturbed by what he sees outside the warm, accepting rooms of his well-off hosts, the onset of famine in Ireland, people living in more dire conditions, than what he has left, though they are free. It is a humbling experience, as it is for anyone meeting those worse off than they, no matter how tragic one’s own circumstance.

“He thought he knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time. It was not something even the most aggrieved Irishman could understand. To be in bondage to everything, even the idea of one’s peace.”

A young maid, Lily Duggan is inspired by his presence to abandon her employ and take a ship to America, where she meets mixed fortune, her descendants equally inspired to search for new shores, leading them back full circle to that island of her birth Ireland. It is through the women characters that the threads of narrative are interwoven and connections are made across the years, witness to, or affected by the consequences of those significant events that the men of those first three chapters represent.

These characters might represent us, the population, those that stay in a country generation after generation, some harbouring seeds of revenge, and those who leave, immigrate, seeking utopia, hoping that there does exist, a place where men and women of any race, class, religion or persuasion have an equal chance at bettering their lives.

And as McCann himself says in the interview with Jeffrey Brown:

“Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.

It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.”

There is something alluring in the novelist who takes on a historical figure and imagines their past, it can bring the past to life in a more animated way; in the present when the media delves into the personal life of an important political or scientific or literary figure, it is deemed an invasion of their privacy, the cult of the celebrity. When a novelist looks back and intertwines the narrative of their accomplishment and the context of their life, their loves, and their thoughts beyond the significant reason that they have become known, it makes them whole and they become characters that we might even relate to.

Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

Past in the Present
Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our loves connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing Möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

Whist many authors safely inhabit the lives of historical figures from a distance, many years or centuries after their death, dwelling in the safety of already published and authenticated research, McCann goes one step further by taking as his third character the US Senator, George Mitchell, effectively channeling his thoughts during the day that he journeys to Northern Ireland to broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Clearly, this was no mean feat, as the interview comments quoted attest, but he succeeds in creating the man behind the politician, without it seeming like an invasion of his privacy.

McCann’s prose style often reduces to the minimum, he sometimes dispenses with conventions of grammar, reducing his phrases to only the words that describe or evoke the scene or emotion and it is compelling reading. He doesn’t strip beauty from language; if anything he accentuates it by removing the accessories.

I don’t wish to make comparisons, but the only other writer whose prose has that kind of addictive effect on my reading is Cormac McCarthy. They don’t strum their words in the same way, but if they were musicians, they’d both be on my playlist. They possess talent worth dwelling within.

“It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences.”

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland