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Americans dominate diverse list of Booker Prize contenders

Posted November 19, 2020 5:23 a.m. EST

— Booker Prize judges are meeting Thursday to pick a winner of the prestigious literary award, choosing from a six-book list that's both U.S.-dominated and strikingly diverse.

Five of the books competing for the 50,000 pound ($66,000) prize are by American or U.S.-based authors, including “The Shadow King,” the story of an orphan in Ethiopia by Maaza Mengiste; Diane Cook’s dystopian tale “The New Wilderness,” Avni Doshi’s India-set mother-daughter saga “Burnt Sugar" and Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life,” which explores racism and homophobia in academic life.

The sole British contender is New York-based Scottish writer Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain,” the story of a boy’s turbulent coming of age in 1980s Glasgow.

Also on the list is Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s “This Mournable Body,” which links the breakdown of its central character and turmoil in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Dangarembga, one of Zimbabwe’s most garlanded authors, was arrested in July and spent a night in detention for taking part in anti-corruption protests.

The Booker’s traditional black-tie dinner ceremony at London’s medieval Guildhall has been scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the winner announcement will be broadcast online and on radio later Thursday from London’s Roundhouse arts venue, with virtual appearances by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and former U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama’s new memoir, “A Promised Land,” was published this week and sold almost 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours.

The prize usually brings the victor a huge boost in sales and profile, and often sparks a debate about the state of the English-language literary scene.

This year’s six finalists include four debut novelists — Doshi, Cook, Stuart and Taylor — and omits high-profile books including “The Mirror and the Light,” the conclusion of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Tudor trilogy. Mantel won the Booker for both its predecessors, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” and had been widely tipped for the hat trick.

Founded in 1969, the prize is open to English-language authors from around the world, but until 2014 only British, Irish and Commonwealth writers were eligible.

That year’s change sparked fears among some Britons that it would become a U.S.-dominated prize. That hasn’t happened, yet. There have been two American winners, Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” in 2016 and George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo” in 2017.

Last year’s prize was won jointly by Canada’s Margaret Atwood for “The Testaments” and Britain’s Bernardine Evaristo for “Girl, Woman, Other.”

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