As long as we can read, we can travel, we can escape, we can explore, we can laugh, we can cry and we can grapple with life’s mysteries – Duchess of Cornwall
By Olayinka Oyegbile
Last week, the Booker Foundation, administrators of the Booker Prize, announced Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain as this year’s (2020) winner of the fiction prize. Stuart’s novel is his debut and was able to stand tall among other books by authors who have won other prizes and the Booker Twice! His book beats Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which is the final in a trilogy about King Cromwell of England. The earlier two books (Wolf Hall, 2009, and Bring Up the Bodies, 2012) in the series have won the Booker Prize. But the last in the series, although got to be longlisted but was not good enough for the judges to make it to the shortlist.
Unfortunately, I have not read any of the two that won the prize, but Mantel must have the touch that resonates with the Booker judges to have made her two efforts to win the prize. I am on the lookout for the trilogy to form my solid opinion about the author.
Now back to Stuart, Shuggie Bain, like most first books is largely autobiographical. It based on the author’s childhood, and described as a searing account of a young boy growing up in Thatcher’s Glasgow of the 1980s, with a mother who is battling addiction. Although Stuart is not the first debut novelist to win the prize, but his win is a vote for determination and the need to persevere.
The Booker Prize usually receives large submissions from writers and most especially now that it has been opened up to include American writers! The opening of the field to American writers led to controversy and made many to think it would make the prize lose its Englishness. But that has not reduced its rating, rather it has, in my view, made it more universal and embracing.
I am particularly impressed that the administrators have been able to from year to year bring important voices to rally for the prize.
The longlist had 13 authors which was later pruned to six on the shortlist. Mantel was in the longlist but surprisingly didn’t make the shortlist. Stuart got on the list with five others. These were: Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) and Mengiste (Ethiopia) are the only Africans on both lists. Ordinarily, I rooted for any of the two to win the coveted prize. But the judges thought otherwise. Better luck next time. Still this is no mean feat; to be longlisted or shortlisted for this prestigious prize is not a joke. It shows that such a writer has become solid and sure of increased attention and book sales.
Margaret Busby, an editor, literary critic and former publisher, who is chair of judges for the prize said: ‘‘Shuggie Bain is destined to be a classic — a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values. The heart-wrenching story tells of the unconditional love between Agnes Bain — set on a descent into alcoholism by the tough circumstances life has dealt her — and her youngest son. Shuggie struggles with responsibilities beyond his years to save his mother from herself, at the same time as dealing with burgeoning feelings and questions about his own otherness.
“Gracefully and powerfully written, this is a novel that has impact because of its many emotional registers and its compassionately realised characters. The poetry in Douglas Stuart’s descriptions and the precision of his observations stand out: nothing is wasted.” A great recommendation, no doubt.
The big lesson from the Booker Prize for Nigeria is the need for us to see books as important part of our life and find how to make it sexy. As I wrote a few years back on another forum, we must market books the same way family planning organisations marketed condom at its introduction. We must make aggressive promotion the way to go. We are always complaining that companies are eager to spend money on reality shows; I think this is so because those in charge of our book efforts don’t try enough to enlist the support of society leaders or voices.
In Nigeria today, the NLNG Literature Prize is the biggest on the continent at $100,000! But the organisers have not been able or have not thought of involving big names in the country in promoting what they do. This year’s Booker Prize had Duchess of Cornwall and former President Barack Obama as testimonials.
The Duchess was quoted as saying: ‘‘While Covid deprived us of so many cultural pleasures − live music, theatre, cinema, art galleries, even being together in the flesh this evening − we have, at least, been able to read. And as long as we can read, we can travel, we can escape, we can explore, we can laugh, we can cry and we can grapple with life’s mysteries … For all these reasons, this year’s Booker Prize is even more important than usual … it celebrates wonderful writers who share their gifts to strengthen, provoke, move and comfort their readers.’’
Former President Obama is a delight to listen to or read and he had this to say, ‘‘I’ve always turned to writing to make sense of our world … And at their best Booker Prize-listed books remind me of fiction’s power to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, understand their struggles, and imagine new ways to tackle complex problems and effect change. I want to salute the work of the Booker Prize Foundation to encourage people to read more fiction and promote the art of reading for the public benefit.’’
These are two powerful testimonials that emphasise the place of books in national development. It is important for our book organisations and promoters to think in this line. The NLNG Literature Prize and the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) must direct their thoughts to this.
For winning the prize, Stuart was awarded the £50,000 prize and a trophy, a designer-bound edition of his book and a further £2,500 for being shortlisted. He is currently working on his second novel.