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15 September 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:40am

The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist is the most diverse and international ever

In a year of reckoning with racial injustice, the shortlist demonstrates the publishing industry’s commitment to do better.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize, which was announced this afternoon, is undoubtedly the most diverse in the prize’s history. Of the many statistics of note – that of the six books, four are by authors of colour, four are debut novels, and four are written by women – perhaps the most striking is that only one author, Douglas Stuart, is from the UK. 

That such an international shortlist is possible for the Booker Prize which, since its inception in 1969, has been regarded as the highest literary accolade in the English-speaking world, is a recent development in itself. The prize was only opened up to any work published in the UK and written in (rather than translated into) English in 2014 – previously, authors had to be citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland to be eligible for entry. 

But the widening of these rules, and so the mindset of the literary elite and the imaginations of readers, has shone a spotlight on brilliant writing from perspectives not always documented in Britain. The judging panel, led by Margaret Busby and including Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Lemn Sissay and Emily Wilson, will also have ensured that voices from wide-ranging backgrounds are on the agenda. This year’s international-heavy list bears such fruit.

Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s debut novel, published by Picador in February, is a gritty tale of poverty in 1980s Scotland. It follows the relationship between a child and his substance-abusing mother. Stuart may be a white man – the only one on this shortlist – but his nomination hardly toes the line of a “male, pale and stale” literary establishment. Stuart has since made a career in fashion design in New York City, and holds dual US citizenship, but his book draws on his working-class upbringing in Glasgow. “I grew up in a house with no books,” he told the New Yorker earlier this year. 

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (published by Daunt Books, one of just two small independent presses to make the list) follows Wallace, a queer black man from a small town in Alabama, as he struggles to find his place at university in the American Midwest. In crystalline prose, Taylor expertly analyses the day-to-day aggressions – some micro, others much more obvious, all tiring – that face a black man living among white friends and lab colleagues.

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The violence in Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (Faber), the episodic final instalment of a trilogy that began in 1988, is not so severe as that encountered in the series’ first book, Nervous Conditions, which recounts a 1960s childhood branded by the war of independence. Tambu, Dangarembga’s protagonist, is middle aged, at a very different stage of life to Taylor’s Wallace, but still she is angered by white privilege, and leaves a prestigious job because of discrimination. Racism, these books say, affects all of us, at every level.

Systemic, historic racism – colonialism – is at the heart of Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste’s second novel The Shadow King (Canongate), which follows women at war against Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. When Aster refuses to wait for her husband to return home from battle and instead sets off herself, it becomes clear the conflict in this novel lies not only between Ethiopia and Italy, but also within intimate relationships, between traditional gender roles and an insistence on embracing a more modern way of life.

The theme of female empowerment is also present in the final two novels that make up the shortlist’s half-dozen: Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton) and Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld). In the former, written by an Indian author born in New Jersey in the US and now living in Dubai, Antara and her mother Tara’s turbulent relationship is the centre point. Around the time Antara has a daughter of her own, she finds herself more and more relied upon to look after her mother, whom she is unsure ever cared for her.

In The New Wilderness, young mother Bea’s escape from the poisoned air of the City to the Wilderness State is to benefit her daughter Agnes. The American author’s environmental dystopia – which centres on ecological collapse, the biggest talking point before the Covid-19 crisis came along – shares its narrative out between Bea and Agnes, making clear the characters’ unease with each other as well as with the unstable world they live in.

The international outlook and racial diversity of this list comes in a year that has seen the world reckon with the facts of racial injustice on a global scale. The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing international Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the disproportionate threat of Covid-19 for people of colour, exposed this injustice, which was itself reflected in the UK publishing world: while sales of books about race by black authors shot up the bestselling lists, the newly formed Black Writers’ Guild issued an open letter to UK publishers to share their concerns about racism in the industry. All five major UK publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster) welcomed the demands of the letter, promising to carry out audits of books by black authors and of black publishing staff. This shortlist demonstrates the industry’s commitment to do better.

It is also all the more notable given it was only last year that the prize was won by a black woman for the first time – and even then, Bernardine Evaristo had to share her win with Margaret Atwood. Comparatively, half of this year’s list is made up of books by women of colour. 

That all the biggest names on the longlist – Anne Tyler, Colum McCann and Hilary Mantel – did not make it on to the shortlist would, in any other year, be considered an upset. Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final novel in her Tudor trilogy, follows two previous Booker-winning instalments. On its publication in March this year, it made chart history when a copy was sold every 2.7 seconds, and had she taken the title again this time, Mantel would have been the first author in history to win the prize three times. But this is 2020: the Booker shortlist makes clear that sales and status don’t count for everything.

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