national book award predictions

Tomorrow the 69th National Book Awards ceremony will be held, featuring the presentation of lifetime achievement awards to Isabel Allende and Doron Weber, as well as the announcement of the winners of each NBA category (Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction). Information on how to livestream the event can be found here.

Earlier in the year I happened to read some of the titles that would go on to be shortlisted for the NBA in Poetry, like Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, but I’ve only read in full the Fiction and Translated Literature shortlists. I definitely enjoyed the Fiction shortlist a lot less than the one for Translated Literature, which is reappearing as a category for the first time in decades due to the growing popularity of translated fiction in the United States. Making my way through both categories introduced me to writers I would have never otherwise read, though, so I don’t regret finishing either.

Ahead of the announcement I wanted to run through the Translated Literature shortlist, since I’m able to recommend all the finalists on it. Synopses are taken from Goodreads, and they precede my own thoughts on each book, which are bracketed; my reviews can be found by clicking on the linked titles. Vox also recently published mini reviews of all twenty-five NBA finalists, for those who might want to learn more about each book.

National Book Award in Translated Literature Finalists


(1) Hanne Ørstavik’s Love

Love is the story of Vibeke and Jon, a mother and son who have just moved to a small place in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, and a travelling carnival has come to the village. Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, and Vibeke is going to the library. From here on we follow the two individuals on their separate journeys through a cold winter’s night – while a sense of uneasiness grows. Love illustrates how language builds its own reality, and thus how mother and son can live in completely separate worlds. This distance is found not only between human beings, but also within each individual. This novel shows how such distance may have fatal consequences

[Written in mesmerizing prose, this novel is quiet, eerie, and artful. Ørstavik drifts between her two protagonists’ perspectives, and subtly portrays the nuances of the relationship between mother and son, in spite of how little they interact with each other in the story. First published in 1997, the novella is accomplished, but it also feels remote and distant from the 2010s. I’d not be disappointed were it to win, but there are more topical finalists in the mix.]

fullsizeoutput_2b0a(2) Domenico Starnone’s Trick

The same blood runs through their veins. One, Daniele Mallarico, is a successful illustrator at the peak of his career. The other, Mario, is his four-year-old grandson who has barely learned to talk but has a few tricks up his loose-fitting sleeves all the same. The older combatant has lived for years in almost complete solitude. The younger one has been dumped with a grandfather he barely knows for 72 hours.

Starnone’s sharp novella unfolds within the four walls (and a balcony!) of the apartment where the grandfather grew up, now the home of his daughter and her family, where the rage of an aging man meets optimism incarnate in the shape of a four-year-old child.

Lurking, ever present in the conflict, is the memory of Naples, a wily, violent, and passionate city where the old man spent his youth and whose influence is not easily shaken.

[As with Love, this novella is formally brilliant but fairly apolitical, aside from some commentary on economic class. Whereas Love is consistently haunting, though, Trick ricochets between the playful and the melancholy, and the ending feels a bit convenient. Because the book is so insular and far removed from social conflict, I can’t see it receiving the award, in spite of how famous the translator—Jhumpa Lahiri—is.]

fullsizeoutput_2b0c(3) Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights

A seventeenth-century Dutch anatomist discovers the Achilles tendon by dissecting his own amputated leg. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flightsexplores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.

[The winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Flights seems to have a strong chance of winning the National Book Award in Translated Literature, but it was my least favorite out of the five titles. More an essayistic collection of stories, facts, and anecdotes than a novel, the book drags on and often feels disjointed. All the pieces are loosely tied together by the theme of migration, but the author tends to superficially deal with the subject. Global attitudes toward migration have shifted so much since the book’s original publication in 2007 that Flights also is fairly outdated.]

fullsizeoutput_2b02(4) Yōko Tawada’s The Emissary

Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.

[A spare consideration of what an environmental apocalypse might look like, The Emissary is short, surprisingly lighthearted, and aimless. The book addresses many of the year’s most pressing concerns, from climate change to nationalism, but it isn’t as carefully plotted as some of the other titles on the shortlist. Selecting this to be the winner would be a daring choice.]

fullsizeoutput_2b01(5) Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental

Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five, with a new life and the prospect of a child, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which reach her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.

In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself—punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.

[At once a family saga and a coming-of-age tale, Disoriental tells a moving story about social upheaval and generational conflict against the backdrop of Iranian history. The novel is written in a dynamic and experimental style, in which the author darts between past and present, but it still feels accessible. I’d love to see this novel win and receive more publicity, especially since it’s the author’s first book and she isn’t as famous as the other writers on the list.]

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