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A sprinkling of stardust

A sprinkling of stardust

Luckily, ahem, there’s nothing much going on in the United States at the moment. . . which means that Barack Obama, whose own memoir is published on Tuesday, is free to join the Booker Prize celebrations just two days later. This extraordinary coup (sorry to use the word) means that viewers/listeners tuning into the prize announcement will hear the former leader of the free world – and a well-known reader – discuss what the Booker Prize novels have meant to him over the years. If Obama is honorary royalty, the real thing, in the shape of the Duchess of Cornwall – a great friend of the prize – will also be speaking, in her case about reading during the pandemic. Literary royalty will, naturally, be present in the form of Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker Prize winner in 1989 and subsequently Nobel Prize laureate and last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, talking about their year since they jointly scooped the prize.


Meanwhile, acting royalty will be in evidence in the shape of, among others, Anne-Marie Duff , Thandie Newton and Paapa Essiedu, who are some of the actors reading from the shortlisted books. Quite a gathering and who/what but the Booker Prize could bring such an elevated cast together? One can almost feel the stardust emanating from the screen.


As she waits for the next week to pass until the announcement of the 2020 Booker prize winner, one of the shortlistees, Maaza Mengiste, has been recalling just how much research went into the writing of The Shadow King before she even put pen to paper. Her novel centres on a young Ethiopian woman who becomes a soldier in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935 and is therefore rich in history, but where did Mengiste look for it? “The official archives that I was looking at in different places in Italy were helpful in some ways,” she says, “but I quickly realised that in order for me to find history that had not been censored by the Fascists, I needed to become inventive.” So she spoke to Italian friends whose fathers or grandfathers had fought in the war and mined their diaries and letters for information. But she realised too that many soldiers had a camera in their kitbag and “At almost every flea market across Italy there is at least one table that is selling Fascist paraphernalia. I would go to that table, and I would ask them if they had any photographs, anything dealing with the colonial period in East Africa.” The pictures she discovered – often in the face of wary, defensive or aggressive stallholders – were a vital part in her imagining her characters and their world.


Margaret Atwood, still for a little longer one of the reigning Booker Prize co-champs, is a poet as well as a novelist and has a new collection coming out, Dearly. She has, however, an interesting take on the difficulties of producing a book of verse, and it is not the writing of it. “I accumulate poetry. . . I’m always writing it but I put it in a drawer,” she said recently, and “when the pile gets big enough I take them out and translate them into typescript. When that gets big enough I lay them all out and see if there’s a book.” It sounds pretty painless except that “I handwrite poetry in cursive, with a pen or pencil, remember those?” and “My handwriting is quite bad. I have to try to figure out what I actually wrote on those pieces of paper and sometimes I have to guess. It is a bit like deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.” All quite poetic really.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Man Booker Prize (as it then was) longlisted author way back in 2004 for Purple Hibiscus, has just been named the Women’s Prize for Fiction “Winner of Winners” as part of the award’s 25th anniversary celebrations. Adichie picked up the gong for Half of a Yellow Sun, from 2007. To come out on top she saw off a host of other Booker Prize novelists including Rose Tremain, the two Smiths – Ali and Zadie - and Kamila Shamsie.