Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has won the 2022 International Booker Prize. Frank Wynne, the Irish translator and chair of the judges, announced the winners at a ceremony at One Marylebone in London.
“This has been an exceptionally strong shortlist,” Wynne said. “Ultimately, we were captivated by the power, the poignancy and the playfulness of Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree’s polyphonic novel of identity and belonging, in Daisy Rockwell’s exuberant, coruscating translation. This is a luminous novel of India and partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.”
Originally published in Hindi in 2018, Tomb of Sand was awarded one of English PEN’s translation awards, which encourages UK publishers to acquire more books from other languages by helping them to meet the costs of translating new works. It was published in English last August by Tilted Axis Press, which was founded to champion Asian literature by translator Deborah Smith with her prize money after her translation from Korean of The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the Booker International in 2016.
Tomb of Sand is the first book in any Indian language to win the International Booker Prize, and the first novel translated from Hindi to be recognised by the award. In fact, Wynne said, it was also the first Indian-language book to be shortlisted or even longlisted, despite Britain’s long, close relationship with the Indian subcontinent, which he suggested might be because of the success of a few high-profile Indian authors writing in English about their homeland. This tended to privilege certain classes and places and exclude others. In such a vast country as India, he said, there is no single story. “I’d quite like to see the mosaic of Indian literature rather than ‘Indian Literature’ writ large, the broad-brush, red sari wedding et cetera.”
The author of three novels and several story collections, Shree was born in Mainpuri, India, in 1957 and lives in New Delhi. This is the first of her books to be published in the UK. Rockwell, a painter, writer and translator, was born in 1969 in Massachusetts and lives in Vermont. She has translated a number of classic works of Hindi and Urdu literature, including Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls, Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard. Her 2019 translation of Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize.
Tomb of Sand is set in northern India, and follows an 80-year-old woman who slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention, including striking up a friendship with a hijra person, confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma insists on travelling to Pakistan, simultaneously confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist.
Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness, Shree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay result in a book that is engaging, funny and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries or genders.
“Literary translation is not cod liver oil, supposed to be good for you,” Wynne said. Tomb of Sand “is extraordinarly funny and fun. It never slows down for a second. It is incredibly fast, extraordinarily engaging and light. It would be a perfectly decent beach read for anyone and you don’t have to be going to Goa.”
Prize administrator Gabby Woods took up the point. Many people who read classics such as Kafka or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary don’t even realise they are reading translations. People asked her if WG Sebald ever won the Booker Prize and she had to remind them that he wrote in German. Wynne likened translations to the world food aisle in a supermarket, where you might find galangal or seaweed, but not pizza or spaghetti bolognese, which are now mainstream. Every English reader grew up with European fairy tales and Greek, Norse and Celtic mythology.
Tomb of Sand was chosen from a shortlist of six books selected from a record 135 submissions by five judges: Wynne, Merve Emre, Petina Gappah, Viv Groskop and Jeremy Tiang.
Earlier this week, Wynne himself won the Dublin Literary Award along with French-Algerian author Alice Zeniter for his translation of her novel, The Art of Losing. As translator, his share of the €100,000 prize was €25,000, whereas the Booker International prize of £50,000 is split equally between Shree and Rockwell, giving author and translator equal recognition. Which does he think is a fairer division? “All prizes are by definition arbitary,” Wynne said. “Some prizes don’t give translators anything. I personally think 50/50 is extremely fair, for what you are reading is Daisy Rockwell’s book, a performance of Geetanjali Shree’s book. What matters is that translators are recognised for the work that they do, not as a tiny cog in the wheel.” He called out Book Brunch, a literary website, for its headline which said that Alice Zeniter had won the Dublin Literary Award. “She didn’t. I won it with her.” Tilted Axis, he said, always put the translator’s name on the cover along with the original author’s name.
Of the six books on the shortlist, only one, was published by a major house, Picador. Wynne observed that many English publishing houses had been founded post-1945 by refugees from eastern and central Europe and they had championed many works in translation. Recently, however, this had changed and new, small, independent presses were filling a growing void, but there were still huge gaps in the market.
“The gaping void is Africa,” Wynne said. “Almost all translations are from colonial languages -French, Afrikaans, Portuguese - not Swahili, Yoruba or Hausa. I would like to see a world in which we were at least curious to see what they’re thinking.”
Shree said of her shortlisting: “Nothing less than wonderful, and with each passing moment yet more wonderful. For bit by bit it dawns better on me what a fine recognition this is. And greater exposure for my work. Even if the Booker focus is on the English translation it willy-nilly casts a light on all my work, in the original and in other language translations.
“This is not just about me, the individual. I represent a language and culture and this recognition brings into larger purview the entire world of Hindi literature in particular and Indian literature as a whole. It also brings into view the fact that there is a vast world of literature with rich lineages which still needs to be discovered. I am pleased and humbled to be the conduit for this.”
The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators.