Women Dominate the Booker Prize 2013 Shortlist: It's About Time

3 years ago

For once, female novelists are getting the recognition they deserve! On Tuesday, the Man Booker Prize committee announced its shortlist of finalists for its 2013 award, and four out of the six nominees are women. If that weren't exciting enough, that exclusive group includes three women of color: Indian American Jhumpa Lahiri, Japanese Canadian Ruth Ozeki and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo. Robert MacFarlane, the chairman of the judging panel acknowledges, “The six books on the list could not be more diverse.”

Top: L-r, Jhumpa Lahiri, Noviolet Bulowayo; Bottom, L-R, Eleanor Catton, Ruth Ozeki, Image Credit: The Man Booker Prizers via Flickr

Back in July, the Booker Prize judges were already hailing their longlist of 14 preliminary nominees for being the "most diverse ever". It’s good to see that the organizers weren’t just paying lip service to women and writers of color as also-rans.

Up until now, it hasn’t been a good year for women in literature. In April, Wikipedia starting to move female authors from the category of “American Women Novelists”, instead of “American Novelists”. One of the problems with always qualifying things for women -- or for blacks or immigrants, for that matter-- is that it’s kind of like saying, “You throw well—for a girl” or “You speak English well—considering you’re Chinese.” When was the last time a male author was congratulated for writing well – for a man?

In the September 5 New York Times, Booker Prize shortlister Jhumpa Lahiri criticized an interviewer for asking her about “immigrant” fiction:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?

In the same issue, the Times got started a brouhaha with an article featuring a list of books about “difficult women”– written, of course, by a man.

This of course, spurred a backlash led by chick lit champion Jennifer Weiner, who went to bat, not only by writing missives on news sites like Salon, but on Twitter.

The organization VIDA tracks gender in the literary world, finding that amongst the most prestigious publications, the book reviewers – and the authors they write about -- are still overwhelmingly male.

Since we started this conversation on the topic of the Man Booker Prize, it’s worth noting that the nominating committee of Britain's highest literary honor is made up of all white males, which goes to show that while it helps to have more women judging these awards, consciencious men can help, too. And the name “Man” doesn’t refer to gender (although it’s easy to see how it could be interpreted that way!), but is the name of the award’s sponsor, the Man Group investment house.

All four of the women on the shortlist are first-time nominees for this honor. The two men, Jim Crace and Colm Toibin, were both short listed in the 1990s.

Women of color in the literary world are especially excited about this news. Author May-Lee Chai tells me:

“I don't know if the judges were more aware of the disparity because of sites like Vida and criticism from various quarters pointing out the marked absence of women writers and especially women writers of color from many publications and prizes. But the prize is recognizing what we readers have known for a long time!”

Still, the cynic in me wonders if the inclusion of so many female and ethnic voices in the nominations is just a way to appease the complainers. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors, and her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. And Ruth Ozeki's Tale for the Time Being is truly original in both form and point of view. But women have been writing great literature for ages, and they haven't been recognized for it.

Anna John, co-founder of the now-shuttered South Asian blog Sepia Mutiny says:

“It's like Christmas Even if this was the result of self-conscious judges doing a bit of cherry picking to create a pretty rainbow, the composition of this shortlist matters because it validates authors who expand how we think of others who are different than we are.”

I like to think the finalists for this year’s Booker Prize could be signal that marginalized voices are finally being heard. In another sign of what’s to come, National Book Foundation’s today released its 5 Under 35 list of up-and-coming writers. All five of them are women.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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