This week, the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their 2021 longlist. Founded in 1996 in response to the absence of women nominees for the Booker Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction can usually be counted on to recognise the vast range of talent of women’s voices in the literary world. This year’s panel is being chaired by accomplished novelist Bernardine Evaristo, and they have chosen what is arguably the most diverse longlist in the Prize’s history.
The first noteworthy aspect of the longlist is that, for the first time, it features a trans woman. After the scandal when author Akwaeke Emezi, who was the first nonbinary nominee for the prize in 2019, revealed in October of 2020 that they would not be submitting any more of their work for consideration for the prize after their publisher was asked what Emezi’s “sex as defined by law” was when inquiring about the prize, the Women’s Prize updated their eligibility guidelines to make clear that any woman was eligible. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby has made history, with Evaristo declaring “it’s a prize for women, and trans women are women.”
The longlist is also racially diverse, following a year of reckoning with the many faces of racial injustice. Highlights include Brit Bennett’s much acclaimed The Vanishing Half, which tells the story of twin sisters in America, one of whom lives with her Black daughter in the South and the other of whom is secretly passing for white, and their two daughters. Avni Doshi’s debut Burnt Sugar, after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, is also included.
Not only is the longlist pleasingly diverse in terms of the authors included, their work also spans several styles and genres. Susanna Clarke’s much-awaited Piranesi is thoroughly different from Ali Smith’s Summer, the conclusion to her seasonal quartet. Dawn French’s examination of motherhood, Because of You, strikingly contrasts with them both. And in total, there are six debuts on the 16-strong list. This year’s longlist really does seem to have something for everyone.
Granted, the publishing industry still has some ways to go. Evaristo highlighted that the oldest author on the list, Dawn French, is only in her early sixties. In general, this seems to reflect our tendency to stop telling people’s stories as they get older, particularly in the case of women. Like Evaristo, I hope that the publishing industry does better in listening to older women’s narratives, particularly older women of colour or older LGBT+ women, whose stories are rarely if ever told.
Still, this is a commendable longlist which has immediately made its way to my towering to-be-read pile. As an international student, I am thoroughly impressed by the range of locations that the stories in this list transport us to, from Hong Kong to Barbados. The publishing world’s tendency towards Anglocentrism has gone relatively unchallenged for too long, and it is refreshing to see the Women’s Prize pushing back against it. They also span a variety of time settings, with Smith’s Summer being set entirely in 2020. I, for one, am very excited to see who will make it to the shortlist. Until then, I’ve just added sixteen books to procrastinate on my summatives with.
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