Booker Prize was restricted by its ‘colonial framework’, say organisers

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Nadifa Mohamed - Handout
Nadifa Mohamed - Handout

The Booker Prize operated under a “colonial framework” by restricting entry to Commonwealth writers, its organisers said.

The chairman of this year’s judging panel also said it was “pretty remarkable in the 21st century” that the British Empire should be considered an “appropriate container” for assessing works of literature.

A 2014 rule change opened the Booker Prize to anyone writing in the English language, prompting fears that American authors would then dominate.

The 2021 shortlist was announced on Tuesday, including three US authors - Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers and Maggie Shipstead - and only one British writer, Nadifa Mohamed, for The Fortune Men. Sri Lanka’s Anuk Arudpragasam and South Africa’s Damon Galgut complete the list.

Gaby Wood, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, was asked if she would revert to the earlier system if authors protested about the lack of British writers on shortlists.

But she said: “Personally, I think the idea of a reversion is a little bit problematic. I prefer the idea of evolution.

“There are political as well as literary problems with reverting to a Commonwealth framework - I mean, it is essentially a colonial framework. I don’t know this is the right time to do that, if there ever was a good time.”

The chairman of this year’s judging panel is Maya Jasanoff, a Harvard professor who lectures on the British Empire.

She said: “I find it interesting that there is so much attention being paid to the passports held by authors when literature more and more, as we go into the 21st century, is something that crosses borders.

“I would just like to underscore the fact about the Commonwealth - I find it pretty remarkable in the 21st century that people are talking about the former British Empire as an appropriate container within which to think about literature.”

Jasanoff is a biographer of Joseph Conrad, and once wrote an article for The Guardian headlined: “How Joseph Conrad foresaw the dark heart of Brexit Britain.”

Wood pointed to the absurdity of Commonwealth writers being eligible for the prize pre-2014 simply because their home countries had been colonised by the British, while those whose countries were colonised by other European nations could not be considered.

She cited Maaza Mengiste as an example. Shortlisted for the prize last year, she was born in Ethiopia, which formed part of Italian East Africa in the early part of the 20th century.

“She was just colonised by the wrong guys, you know? I mean, Ethiopia was colonised by the Italians. What do you do, [say] ‘Sorry, you weren’t colonised by us, the really great colonisers, and so you’re not eligible’?” It just doesn’t seem a conversation that we should be having,” Wood said.

The winner will be announced on November 3.

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