Celebrating Black History Month with the International Booker Prize
By Megha Alam, Jane Bentham and Rob Tomlinson
Marking October’s Black History Month, we have chosen to spotlight Black winners and nominees of the International Booker Prize, whose work focuses on the realities of colonialism and its legacies. The international section of the prestigious literary prize is open to living authors of any nationality whose work is available in English translation. Initially recognising a writer’s body of work, like the Nobel Prize, since 2016 the Booker Prize has awarded a single book each year, and the prize is shared between author and translator.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckdou, translated by Helen Stephenson
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2017 and originally published in French, this novel is set in the Congolese writer’s hometown of Pointe-Noire, on the Republic of Congo’s coastline. Black Moses follows the life of Moses, a young boy who escapes his orphanage and joins a gang of petty thieves in the port town. True to his namesake, Moses retains a strong sense of justice, boldly defending the weak and vulnerable. While aspects of magical realism are blended into this coming-of-age story, it never strays far from its social and historical context.
Over the course of the novel, we witness large changes in Moses’ community, such as the waning influence of religion amidst the rise of Socialism. The prose is rich in sharp wit and farce as it ridicules and condemns the corrupt politics in the Congo during the 1970s. Through a set of remarkable characters, Mabanckdou also pays homage to those who are unable to escape injustice and corruption yet hold onto their courage and resilience. This is echoed in the story’s structure, which quickly alternates between child-like, fantastical optimism and the bleakness of reality. Mabanckdou provides us with an entertaining and darkly humorous adventure through a frequently overlooked historical period.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis
At Night All Blood is Black, originally written in French by David Diop, is a powerful literary exploration of the grim repercussions of the French exploitation of its colonies during World War One. The novel, awarded the International Booker Prize in 2021, takes readers on a journey into Alfa Ndiaye’s mind. Alfa is a Senegalese man who grapples with the profound loss of his close childhood friend, Mademba Diop, while serving in the French army during World War One. The story explores the trauma of war, as Alfa is unable to contain his anger and grief of losing his “more-than-brother” friend. Driven by his rage, Alfa starts to kill German soldiers in the same manner that his friend was killed and brings back the severed hands of his victims to the camp. Within the context of the war, where the line between humanity and inhumanity is thin, he is initially deemed a hero. However, as his murders turn into an obsession, the other French soldiers begin to fear him as they see his killing spree for what it is: his descent into madness. As the story continues, it delves more into Alfa’s past while detailing his mental decline, exposing the effects of war on what was once a kind and gentle man. Diop confronts the unflinching brutality of war and the reality that strips the psyche of a sense of humanity. The novel boldly addresses the sacrifices forced upon the colonies, exemplified by Alfa's journey, as he is pushed into an unforgiving war zone on behalf of the French. At Night All Blood is Black is a thought-provoking narrative that invites readers to confront the darkest side of human nature and reflect on the complex legacies of colonialism and war.
Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne
GauZ’ is the nom de plume of Ivorian writer Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé, who has been widely recognised in the French-speaking world for the quality of his writing and piercing insight into contemporary society. Standing Heavy draws on the author’s experiences living as an undocumented migrant in Paris, where he arrived in 1999 to study a biology master’s and, eventually, like the characters of the book, worked as a security guard. It is a sharply satirical novel that examines migration policy and (post)colonial relations between Francophone Africa and France, as two generations of undocumented African workers attempt to make a life for themselves in Paris. Before being shortlisted in translation for the International Booker Prize, Standing Heavy won the 2014 Book of the Year competition from French literary magazine Lire, a testament to this compelling work.