The Man Booker Prize prides itself on its ability to transform the winner’s career. Household names like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, V. S. Naipul and Margaret Atwood are all proof of what recognition on an internationally acclaimed level can produce. It is also worth noting, of course, that up until 2014, the Man Booker prize was limited to novels written in English and published in the UK from a certain geographical area: namely, the UK, Zimbabwe, and Commonwealth nations. In 2014, this rule was altered to make the prize more “universal”. What it has succeeded in doing, instead, is limit the ability of the prize to change the lives of writers from disadvantaged countries. For the past two years, the prize has been won by an American author.
The 2017 winner Lincoln in the Bardo is not undeserving by any means. It is beautifully written, and George Saunders experiments with the traditional novel form in interesting ways. However, the fact remains that Saunders is already an acclaimed author, having won numerous awards over his career for seven other works of fiction and three non-fiction collections. The film rights to Bardo had been sold five weeks after its publication. Will Saunders benefit from the prize? Certainly, and it is right that he does. But is there someone else on that shortlist who deserved it more? Most definitely.
Saunders’ novel was chosen because, according to the judges, the narrative about American President Lincoln’s grief at the loss of his favourite son was “deeply moving”. The year before, Paul Beatty won for The Sellout, an American writer with an American book based on American race relations. Both novels are brilliant in their own right and the writers deserve the credit they have received for presenting them to us, but the inclusion of American writers has necessarily meant that other novels, perhaps more suited to the landscape of today’s world on a global level rather than a US-centric one, have been ignored.
Of course, the responsibility for this does not rest on the writers’ shoulders. Despite assurances that the committee of the Man Booker Prize does not look at nationality when making their decision, perhaps they should consider it. The prize has been lauded for years because it levels the playing field, allowing a community of writers who are at par to compete. Only in recent years have the longlists grown more star-studded; before 2010, the names almost exclusively comprised of writers from ethnic minorities, developing countries, and/or debut novelists.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is the hidden gem of the Booker shortlist. It is Hamid’s fourth novel, and deals with themes of migration and displacement in a variety of interesting ways. The intersections between fantasy (represented by the portals leading to different locations around the globe) and reality (which we see through the way refugees are treated in “Dark London”), allow us to see the current situation within the world through the lens of characters that we relate to, and yet we cannot fully understand because we aren’t meant to.
Despite assurances that the committee of the Man Booker Prize does not look at nationality when making their decision, perhaps they should consider it
Brexit’s looming reality and the idea of borders as more and more a tangible concept rather than “imaginary” restrictions on movement, Exit West offers a look into a world tarnished by hatred and civil war. In Hamid’s work, the world has reached a point where it is easy to forget what you are fighting for, because the act of fighting takes up too much energy in the first place.
Hamid’s novel has been praised because of the way it makes issues like refugee crises and war relatable by focusing on the private lives of characters, and how they are shaped by their surroundings. In a world where the position of immigrants is fragile due to the actions of certain individuals, perhaps the promotion of a work that humanizes refugees would make more sense than the fiction re-telling of the saddest moment in the life of an American president whose status as a “moral visionary” is heavily debated to this day.