Born to a French mother and a Senegalese father, David Diop has won the prestigious annual International Booker prize for translated fiction. He shares the prize with his translator Anna Moschovakis for the novel, At Night All Blood is Black (2018). The book tells the story of a Senegalese soldier who descends into madness while fighting for France in the first world war. It has been a bestseller in France and won several major literary awards. Literature scholar Caroline D. Laurent, a specialist in Francophone post-colonial studies and how history is depicted in art, told us why the novel matters.
Who is David Diop?
Diop is a Franco-Senegalese writer and academic born in Paris in 1966. He was raised in Dakar, Senegal. His father is Senegalese, his mother French and this dual cultural heritage is apparent in his literary works. He studied in France, where he now teaches 18th-century literature.
At Night All Blood is Black is Diop’s second novel: his first – 1889, l’Attraction universelle (2012) – is about a Senegalese delegation at the 1889 universal exhibition in Paris. His next book, about a European traveller to Africa, is set to come out this summer.
What is At Night All Blood is Black about?
Its tells the story of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese tirailleur (infantryman) and the main narrator of the novel (he uses the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in most of the text). He is fighting on France’s side – and on French soil – during World War I.
The novel starts with the narration of a traumatic event that the African soldier has witnessed: the long and painful death of his best friend, Mademba Diop. The traumatic event directs Alfa’s vengeance, that could also be perceived as self-punishment. He kills German soldiers in a similar way, reproducing and repeating the traumatic scene. He then cuts one of their hands off and keeps it with him.
This results in Alfa being sent to a psychiatric hospital where doctors attempt to cure him. It deals with the concepts of war neurosis and shell shock that appeared then (what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder).
The form of the novel associates elements of an inner monologue as well as a testimony. This allows the reader to see, through the perspective of a colonial subject, the horrors of war.
In this sense, Diop writes a nuanced text: he describes the violence perpetrated and experienced by all sides. Alfa Ndiaye becomes a symbol of the ambivalence of war and its destructive power.
Why does the book matter?
It’s important because it addresses what I would refer to as a silenced history: that of France’s colonial troops. Though the colonial troops, and especially the Senegalese tirailleurs, a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army, were established at the end of the 1800s, they became ‘visible’ during World War 1 as they took part in combat on European soil.
Despite this, the involvement of African soldiers during the two World Wars is rarely taught in French schools or discussed in the public sphere. The violence exercised during recruitment in French West Africa, their marginalisation from other troops and the French population notably through a specific language (the français tirailleur) – created to prevent any real communication – and their treatment after the wars go against a specifically French narrative that emphasises the positive aspects of France’s colonialism and its civilising mission.
The lack of visibility of the history of Senegalese tirailleurs is also connected to the ongoing dispute about specific events. One in particular is the massacre of Thiaroye. In December 1944, between 70 to 300 hundred (the numbers are disputed) Senegalese tirailleurs were killed at a demobilisation camp in Thiaroye, after having asked to be paid what they were owed for their military service.
Diop also manages to shatter stereotypes associated with Senegalese tirailleurs. In French historical and literary representations, they are seen as both naïve children in need of guidance and barbaric warriors. Senegalese tirailleurs partook, against their will, in war propaganda: this representation was to create fear on the French side as well as on the German side (Die Schwarze Schande – the Black Shame – presented African soldiers as rapists and beasts).
Diop appropriates this in order to complicate it: while Alfa’s violence in killing his enemies follows this logic, one realises that this causes – and was caused by – great distress. Moreover, Diop also inverts this vision as he questions who is human and inhuman: Alfa asserts that his Captain, Armand, is more barbaric than he is.
Diop thus manages to question representations of black soldiers dictated by colonial stereotypes – in order to dismantle them.
Why does this Booker win matter?
Diop receiving the International Booker prize is of great importance because At Night All Blood is Black exposes a specifically French history that is connected to France’s colonial endeavours. And even though the novel focuses on France, it connects to other histories as it indirectly points to the fact that other European colonial powers also resorted to using colonial troops during wars and erased their role in subsequent commemorations.
The novel also shows the importance and power of translation as Anna Moschovakis has managed to translate all of the beauty and horror of Diop’s prose. In the same way that Diop manages to combine his dual heritage in his text, Moschovakis has allowed English readers to be exposed to a history that is specific to France, and yet similar to other histories.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2021 International Booker Prize shortlist.
For more visit:
The links below are to articles reporting on the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, Douglas Stuart, for ‘Shuggie Bain.’
For more visit:
Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain has won the 52nd Booker Prize. The ceremony, normally a glitzy affair with long speeches, readings from shortlisted books and a lavish dinner, was held in a relatively empty Roundhouse Theatre.
The few in attendance included BBC Front Row’s John Wilson, the 2020 Booker Prize Chair of Judges Margaret Busby, last year’s winner Bernadine Evaristo and the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble. The shortlisted authors and guest speakers joined virtually, beamed into the ceremony from their homes.
Whether deliberately or not, this was one of the most politically charged Booker Prize shortlists and winner we’ve ever had. Not only did the ceremony include a video from former President Barack Obama, who wished the shortlisted authors luck and expounded on the importance of reading, but the shortlist and eventual winner also echo the most significant and complex challenges we have faced throughout 2020.
The entire shortlist speaks to our current cultural moment – covering themes such as climate change, existential anxiety, the challenges of familial care, racial micro-aggressions and class prejudice. The winner explores issues of childhood poverty, parental alcoholism and emotional neglect in 1980s Glasgow, issues which remain alarmingly relevant in 2020. The pandemic has highlighted social inequalities throughout the UK, particularly the vulnerability of the 4.2 million children living in relative poverty.
It seems that Shuggie Bain’s relevance in 2020 was clear to the prize judges who reportedly took only an hour to come to the unanimous decision to select the winner. Busby said that Shuggie Bain was “destined to become a classic”.
A diverse longlist
There is no doubt that prize shortlists – whether for literature, film or art – reflect the cultural and political moment in which they exist. This may seem an obvious point since all forms of art are influenced by the context within which they’re created. But it is nonetheless important to remember that prizes are not only celebrations of artistic endeavour; but are a kind of time capsule, capturing the cultural moment in which they were chosen.
This year we’ve sought out art and literature that helps us make sense of the systemic political and social inequities embedded within society. This was seen by the rise of sales of books such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race in response to the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer. This surge in sales led to Eddo-Lodge becoming the first black British author to top UK book charts.
The 2020 Booker Prize has contributed to this moment too. This year’s longlist was one of the most diverse in the prize’s history. On the shortlist, four of the six books were debut novels and four of the six shortlisted authors are writers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. It was also the most diverse judging panel ever.
During the ceremony, Busby was reluctant to suggest that the diverse selection of books was deliberate. She did, however, acknowledge that publishing still had some way to go “in terms of including people from a different demographic […] people from different classes, different ethnicities, different regions of the country”.
More work to be done
The Booker Prize itself has historically replicated inequities. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until 2015 that the judging panel included a black judge, and Bernadine Evaristo was the first black woman to win the prize in 2019 (even then she had to share it with Margaret Atwood).
While the diversity of the authors and stories on the shortlist might suggest that publishing has made demonstrable progress in recent years, the Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report published earlier this year reminds us otherwise. The industry is far from implementing significant changes. Publishers continue to make broad assumptions about their core (white, middle-class) audiences, fail to reach diverse audiences, and undervalue writers and readers from BAME and working-class backgrounds.
So, while we should celebrate the 2020 Booker Prize for its diversity in voice, representation and themes, it has been borne of a specific moment in which we have been forced to examine societal inequities and structural inequalities. And we cannot become complacent about the enduring need to continue this work.
This year’s Booker prize shortlist offers the most diverse lineup ever with four female and two male writers, four of who are people of colour. But while the diversity of the 2020 shortlist for the best original novel is to be commended, the majority of the publishers of Booker-winning novels are still based in London.
This reflects that the concentration of power in UK publishing is still in the English capital. As such, non-English British writers published outside London are perennially disadvantaged by the Booker’s selection criteria.
And as it stands, of the 30 times the prize has been awarded to UK-based authors, it has only once gone to a Scottish author: James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late, in 1994. It went once to a Welsh author – Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member in 1970 – while Anna Burns became the first winner from Northern Ireland in 2018 for Milkman. Three non-English, but UK-based winners, all of which were published by London presses.
The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history, having originally been set up as an award for British and Commonwealth writers writing in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland.
The literary prize opened up its entry criteria in 2013 to allow submissions from writers born outside of Britain, its Commonwealth and its former colonies. This is a move that continues to rankle some prominent British authors with concerns US writers are dominating the line-up. All but one of the writers on the 2020 shortlist, are from the US or hold joint US citizenship.
Prior to this, the makeup of Booker winners was overwhelmingly male (67%), privately-educated (62%), and one-third of winners had attended Oxford or Cambridge University. No wonder, then, that Julian Barnes, former judge and winner of the prize, described it as “posh bingo”.
A publishers’ prize?
As with any literary prize, the Booker’s submission criteria has always influenced the kind of novels that are shortlisted. Its submission guidelines, which don’t allow entries from publishers who don’t publish at least two literary fiction titles a year, have created an unbalanced system.
And since a rule change in 2013, the prize is now weighted even more towards publishers with a history of having books longlisted for the prize – who are able to submit up to four entries. This change was said to be in the interest of fairness and to better “represent the levels of publishing the different sized houses do”. But many feel the changes work in favour of the bigger publishers.
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller. And for non-English UK novelists published by small presses (self-published works are ineligible for the Booker), the Booker is simply not a plausible option.
As Leigh Wilson, professor of English literature, has argued on this site: “Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves.” This is compounded by the fact that: “The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist”.
Absence of small presses
The prize also often illustrates a disconnect between the publishing industry and the reading public. This gulf could be behind the surging popularity of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, a reader-nominated, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rejoinder to the Booker’s perceived pomposity.
Indeed, Welsh writer Richard Owain Roberts’ debut, Hello Friend We Missed You – touted as the favourite for this year’s Not the Booker – would simply never have been considered for entry to the Booker. This is because the submission criteria makes it near impossible for small presses – like Parthian, Roberts’ Cardigan-based publisher – to even afford to enter.
This absence or marginalisation of writers in Wales, Scotland and Ireland seems not to relate to sales successes. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful Normal People, for example, didn’t make the step from longlist to shortlist for the Booker. This is despite it having a cult following, achieving substantial sales and being touted as the favourite when the longlist was announced.
But the Booker is far from alone in not reflecting bestseller lists. In his analysis of the Pulitzer prize for fiction (broadly the US equivalent of the Booker), author and academic, James F. English notes the number of shortlisted novels that also appear on that year’s top ten bestseller lists have been in steady decline – from a high point in the 1960s of 60% to under 5% in the 1990s.
That said, winning might not be all it’s cracked up to be, given a 2014 study found that literary prizes make books less popular.
The links below are to articles reporting on the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize.
<For more visit:
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 winner of the International Booker Prize.
For more visit:
When she announced the 2020 Booker Prize longlist recently, the chair of the judging panel, Margaret Busby, noted that the selected books “represent a moment of cultural change”. And while one could be tempted to see her words as the sort of hyperbole that often accompanies these announcements, the selection of 13 novels (the “Booker dozen”) for 2020 is – in some ways – one of the more interesting and diverse we’ve seen in a long time.
Two key aspects of the list made for the most discussion for literary commentators and social media. First, the inclusion of Hilary Mantel’s latest book, and the final in her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Both the two previous books in the trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – won the Booker Prize, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. If Mantel was to win the 2020 Booker Prize for The Mirror & the Light she would be the first author to ever win three Bookers.
Second, nearly half of the longlist is made up of debut novels, which even the literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood, has admitted is an “unusually high proportion”. This is certainly something the Booker Prize and its judging panel should be commended for.
Like all other creative industries, publishing has been hit hard by the worldwide pandemic. From the cancellation of major events, including the London Book Fair in March, and the closing of bookshops, to the postponement of major releases, including Ruth Jones’ second novel Us Three, the 2020 publishing calendar has been turned upside down.
The celebration of debut novels in the Booker Prize longlist, then, is particularly fortuitous, since many debut writers have lost the opportunity to go through the usual new book tours, literary event circuits and bookshop signings.
Spreading the love?
Independent publishers in particular have been hit hard in 2020. A survey conducted in May by the Bookseller and Spread the Word found that 85% of the publishers surveyed saw their sales drop by over a half since the UK’s national lockdown in March. So the 2020 Booker Prize longlist might also be applauded for its celebration of titles from indie presses.
Six of the 13 longlisted books come from four (admittedly well-known and larger) independent presses: Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s, This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber), Colum McCann’s Apeirogon and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury), Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King (Canongate) and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Daunt Books Publishing).
The seven other books are from Pan Macmillan, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette. I’ve written before about how the Booker’s terms of submission may sway the prize in favour of big publishers, but this year there is at least some semblance of balance.
I’ve also written before about how the Booker Prize has historically failed to award writers of colour – an issue which was highlighted once again in 2019 when Bernardine Evaristo became the first black British woman to win the award.
Evaristo’s win was considered by many to be a long overdue recognition for a widely acclaimed writer, but the fact that Evaristo had to share the award with Margaret Atwood, a white, former Booker Prize winner, did not go unnoticed. It is perhaps promising, then, that nine of the new 13-strong Booker longlist are women – and more than half are writers of colour.
The overwhelming majority are US-based or born. This is significant since American writers have only been eligible for the prize since 2014 – and the change in rules that led to the inclusion of American writers was criticised by a number of authors and publishers at the time. Since the rule change, only two American authors have won the award: Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders in 2017. The prize is also now sponsored by the American-based charitable foundation Crankstart, founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz.
Finally, it is worth highlighting the kinds of themes and issues dealt with in the longlisted books. The books examine race, homosexuality, gender and gender identity, poverty, class (and in some cases, intersections of them all), homelessness and climate change.
The subjects foregrounded by many of the longlisted books, therefore, not only speak to current socio-political movements and conflict – most notably Black Lives Matter and the call for active anti-racism. But they also foreshadow the kinds of issues we will undoubtedly come up against (and, in some circumstances, already are) in a post-coronavirus world. In other words, more so than ever before, this longlist feels both born from, and representative of, the very particular moment in history in which we are in.
But only time will tell if this will be reflected in the final shortlist which will be announced on September 15, with the winner being announced in November. If Mantel were to be crowned the winner – receiving her third Booker Prize in just over a decade – it would arguably prove that yet again the Booker Prize acts only to reinforce, as opposed to disrupt as hoped, the systemic inequalities and imbalances of contemporary publishing culture.