Man Booker ceremony caps whirlwind week for Obioma

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Man Booker ceremony caps whirlwind week for Obioma

UNL professor's novel was among six on shortlist for prestigious award
Chigozie Obioma
Chigozie Obioma

Jamaican writer Marlon James was named the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” on Oct. 13 in London.

Chigozie Obioma, assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had been among six authors nominated for the prize, which some regard as the world’s most prestigious English-language literary award.

At 28, he was the youngest of the six shortlisted nominees. He was nominated for his debut novel, “The Fishermen,” a Cain and Abel-like tale of four young brothers confronted by a mad man’s chilling prophecy.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, presented the prize during a black-tie dinner Oct. 13. The event culminated several days of whirlwind activity for Obioma and the other candidates, including around-the-world press coverage, interviews by BBC TV and radio and public appearances.

The contest’s five judges considered 156 books before settling on a longlist of 13 nominees in July and narrowing it to a shortlist of six in September.

Marco Abel, chairman of UNL’s English department, said merely being nominated places Obioma among some of the most influential literary figures in the English-speaking world.

Judith Clain, Obioma’s editor at Little, Brown and Co. in New York, said “The Fishermen” ranks as a new literary classic.

“I first read the manuscript of ‘The Fishermen’ on my iPhone on my way to the London Book Fair,” she recalled. “It felt, quite literally, like having dug a classic out of the earth and holding it in the palm of my hands.”

“The power of the novel lies in its timeless, mythic aura,” she said. “Yet at the same time it exhibits the tightly controlled, character-driven dynamic of a master story-teller.”

Earlier this month, Obioma was announced as an inaugural winner of the Financial Times/Oppenheimer Emerging Voices award, launched to honor writers, artists and filmmakers of the developing world.

The other shortlisted works were “Satin Island” by Tom McCarthy of the United Kingdom; “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James of Jamaica; “The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota of the U.K.; “A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler of the U.S.; and “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara of the U.S. Many observers had picked “A Little Life” as the judges’ most likely choice, followed by “The Year of the Runaways” and “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” though at least one reviewer predicted “The Fishermen” could be chosen.

The six appeared together on stage earlier this week to read from their novels at the London Literary Festival.

For Obioma to be named to the shortlist, judges ranked his book ahead of works by literary luminaries such as Anne Enright of Ireland and Anuradha Roy of India, both previous Man Booker Prize winners, and Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson of the United States. Past winners of Man Booker Prizes include Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Kingsley Amis, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer.

“It’s a very small number of writers who have made it into that category,” Abel said. “One of the benefits, along with increased sales of their book, is that the prize becomes part of their cachet in the future. They become part of the literary conversation – they enter into a certain kind of club. “

During an interview earlier in the week, Obioma described how overjoyed he had been in July to learn his novel had been named to the Man Booker longlist. He was having lunch with his father at the time, and only his father’s presence stopped him from running into the street to shout the news, he said.

“I felt very encouraged,” he said. “I am not wasting my time after all. It breathed new life into my book – a resurrection, in fact.”

Obioma joined UNL’s creative writing faculty in August. He has said he was attracted to the university in part because of efforts by Kwame Dawes, Chancellor’s Professor of English, to promote African literature. Dawes, a Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet, is Glenna Luschei Editor of the Prairie Schooner literary magazine. He established the African Poetry Book Fund and Series in 2012.

Dawes described Obioma as a young writer on the rise.

“He is a thoughtful, sensitive and generous writer who sets a high standard of literary excellence for himself, without losing sight of the traditions that have shaped him,” Dawes said.

Clain, his editor, agreed.

“There’s no knowing what Chigozie will do next, but we at Little, Brown will follow him wherever he goes,” she said.

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