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American author George Saunders wins Man Booker Prize for 2017

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 08, 2018

George Saunders, author of 'Lincoln in the Bardo', poses for photographers after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London on Tuesday. - Reuters

The American author and bookies’ favourite George Saunders was named as the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. He is the second American to have won the award since the prize was opened up to anyone regardless of their nationality in 2014. Three of the six authors who made it to the short list were from the US, alongside two Britons and Pakistani-British author Mohsin Hamid.

Announcing the prestigious £50,000 price, Lola Young who chaired the judging panel insisted the shortlisted books and authors “defied categorisation in terms of nationality”, reflecting the reality of vast numbers of people who cris-crossed the world to answer questions that “perplexed us all.”

Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which focuses on a single night in 1862 and the burial of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, was seen as the most experimental of the short listed novels and is the first long-form novel of the author, best known for his short stories. “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative,” said Baroness Young. “ Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.”

Alongside Saunders, Hamid’s tale of the global migration crisis, Exit West made it to the short list, with Paul Auster’s 4321, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Ali Smith’s Autumn, and Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. Arundathi Roy’s first novel in 20 years, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time were among the books by leading authors not to make the final six. Young said that the choice of Saunders had involved five hours of deliberation, with a decision reached just hours before the announcement on Tuesday evening.

Accepting the £50,000 award, Saunders said the “strange time” we lived in presented a simple question: “do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projections or violence, or do we take that…great leap of faith and try to respond to with love? And with faith in what seems other is actually not other at all but just us on another day.”

“In the US we are hearing a lot about the need to protect culture… well tonight this is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, activist culture,” he said. “It is a room full of believers through the word, in beauty and ambiguity….in trying to see the other’s point of view even when its hard…believers in trying to eliminate hatred and meanness and lazy habitual thinking. Even when especially when we find these in our selves.”

Born in Texas, and a graduate in exploration geophysics, Saunders worked as a geophysicist in the field, a doorman, roofer and other roles before moving into writing and journalism. Alongside six collections of short stories he has written two screenplays. His collection Tenth of December won the Folio Prize in 2014 and the Story Prize in 2013. While Saunders had spent the past four years working on Lincoln in the Bardo (“my writing is very iterative, I do a lot of revising”, he told gathered journalsits) the story was one that was 20 years in the making, originating in his fascination with that moment in time, and his subsequent attempt to find a way into a character so familiar to people across the world.

He contrasted Lincoln who from being a “typical Midwestern guy” who underwent a “spiritual growth spurt” which grew his“compassion and heart”, with that of the current US administration that seemed “intent on shrinking” the commonwealth of compassion until we only care about people who are exactly like us. It’s a complete eradication of the American ideal.”

Published on October 18, 2017

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