Literature: Unexpected winners, contested sequels, failed appeals….’2016 In Retrospect’ by By Vikas Datta
It was a tumultuous, even controversial, time for literature in 2016 with mixed reactions to the unexpected recipients of its most prestigious prizes, the latest installment of a popular series and appeals of a host of top British and American authors ahead of major political developments in their respective countries.
The year also took its toll, with sad goodbyes to over a dozen prominent authors — from Nobel Prize winners to the first to extensively study the impact of our advancing technology on culture and society, and an indefatigable Indian woman activist for the rights of the marginalised to a reclusive American woman who achieved literary immortality with her sole work.
In a decision that earned it much praise — and much criticism — the Swedish Academy announced the Nobel Prize for Literature would go to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
While many welcomed the award for an abiding musical legend, who has created eloquent anthems of iconoclastic protest, many others disparaged the decision, citing many “great literary works” which were “waiting their due credit”. The 75-year-old Dylan, who became the first American in over two decades to get the honour (after novelist Toni Morrison in 1993), said he was “speechless” but after confirming attendance, skipped the ceremony.
Two years after it was opened to authors writing in English beyond the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe, the Man Booker Prize went to American author Paul Beatty for his subversive and savage satire on race relations, “The Sellout”, the first of the genre to win the 47-year-old award. The Pulitzer for fiction went to Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathiser” providing a new perspective on America’s Vietnam war, and especially and mercilessly mocking the Hollywood version.
Among the most-awaited books of the year was one promising to provide a look into the future life of a popular boy wizard, but a script depicting him as an overworked, middle-aged father who can’t seem to get on with his younger, less-gifted son didn’t leave everyone happy.
Based on a story by J.K. Rowling, along with theatre director John Tiffany and theatre, film and radio writer Jack Thorne (who also adapted it for the stage), “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two” was welcomed by those grateful for an opportunity to revisit the wizarding world, and slammed by those unimpressed with the format and the liberties it takes with characters, albeit in alternative timelines.
Meanwhile, for avid readers, there were books galore for a wide expanse of tastes and interests.
Among those that deserve mention would, in fiction, include Kiran Manral’s “The Face at the Window” giving the “Himalayan Gothic” genre a new life beyond the Raj’s ghosts, Abir Mukherjee’s “A Rising Man” and Arjun Raj Gaind’s “A Very Pukka Murder” which fill the under-utilised genre of Raj-era whodunnits and Anuja Chandramouli’s “Yama’s Lieutenant” entwining Hindu mythology with the present.
Rachna Singh’s “Band, Baaja, Boys!” offers an evocative look into small-town love and aspirations, Karthik Laxman’s uproarious “Unreal Aliens” about some unique visitors to Narendra Modi’s India and top journalist Frank Gardner’s “Crisis”, a terrorism thriller but from an unexpected direction.
Non-fiction is harder but some deserving consideration would include biographies of Shammi Kapoor (by Rauf Ahmed) and Dara Singh (by Seema Sonik Alimchand), Mike Edward’s “Spitfire Singh” about the Indian airman who rose from sepoy to an Air Vice Marshal, Henry Jeffreys’ “Empire of Booze” on a history of Britain and its empire through the alcoholic drinks it popularised, Alex Marshall’s “Republic or Death”, a quest for stirring national anthems, and Janna Levin’s “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” about the chequered history of “the scientific breakthrough of the century” — the observation of gravitational waves, which Einstein had predicted.
The year also marked sad adieu to many renowned authors like philosopher-novelist Umberto Eco, and Harper “To Kill a Mockingbird” Lee (on the same day), British novelist Anita Brookner, Nobel winners Imre Kertesz, Dario Fo and Elie Wiesel, American journalist and writer Michael Herr, American futurist Alvin Toffler, India’s Mahasweta Devi, Russia’s Fazil Iskander, American playwright Edward Albee (of “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf” fame), Urdu poet and critic Malikazada Manzoor Ahmed and American novelist E.M. Nathanson, whose “The Dirty Dozen” inspired the iconic war movie.
But writers didn’t have it all their way in 2016. Despite appeals of the likes of Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, John le Carre, Philip Pullman, Tom Stoppard, Geoff Dyer, and Michael Frayn, Britain voted to leave the EU while an open letter signed by almost 500 writers including Stephen King, Geraldine Brooks, Junot Diaz, Amy Tan, Ha Jin, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Claire Messud, Cheryl Strayed, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Mary Roach failed to keep Americans from electing Donald Trump their President.