Prize of place

How the Anglophone world still determines the Man Booker International

On Thursday, the newspapers baldly reported that the Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy had lost the Man Booker International Prize to American writer and translator Lydia Davis. Some reports were as laconic as this sentence. But ironically, there was much to talk about.

What follows is not criticism of the prize, which was established with honourable intentions. Nor is this a note of support for Ananthamurthy, who has given a creditable account of himself already, saying that his inclusion in the shortlist brought Kannada on par with other world languages, and that he spoke as “one of many writing in their mother tongues in India”.

The Man Booker International was a step up from Anglophone literary prizes, which are usually limited by language and location. To qualify, a writer’s work must only be generally available in English, and can even be in translation. The prize was designed to bring down language barriers and let world literatures compete via English. It’s a fine project, except that location still matters.

Five extraordinary writers have won the prize since it was instituted in 2005 — the Albanian Ismail Kadare, the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, the Canadian Alice Munro, and Philip Roth and Lydia Davis, both Americans. Except Kadare, they are all either native to Britain or North America, or have strong ties to them through publishing and academia. Kadare has ties with France, which is also a literary springboard. For instance, it was a French translation of Ficciones which brought Jorge Luis Borges to international attention, though his peers were also producing experimental work in Buenos Aires at the time.

A similar pattern of localisation is found among the judges. This year, it was Sir Christopher Ricks, Tim Parks and Aminatta Forna (English), Elif Batuman (American) and Yiyun Li (Chinese American). Earlier, exceptions to this pattern have included the Ukrainian Andrey Kurkov and Amit Chaudhuri, but even he divides his time between Kolkata and Norwich, UK. Judges themselves nominate writers without taking external recommendations. All the 10 contenders, including South Asians Ananthamurthy and Intizar Hussain, and the winner, Lydia Davis, were there because jury members valued their work.

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