Edna O’Brien: Lolita author Nabokov was ‘scathing of women’
‘Country Girls’ author on ‘our unhinged times’ as she receives $50,000 Pen award
Edna O’Brien: recognised for “the absolute perfection of her prose” which broke down “social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond”. Photograph: Alan Betson
Edna O’Brien received the $50,000 Pen/Nabokov award for achievement in international literature from fellow Irish writer Colum McCann at a ceremony in New York last night.
She paid a backhanded compliment in her acceptance speech to her native land, which now celebrates her but once banned her books. “It’s a wonderful thing to know that madness and obstacle are grist to the mill. [...] So I thank my country.”
McCann said in his introduction: “She creates deeply human structures in a world that so often opposes such complexities ... She refuses to live in stunned submission.”
O’Brien, who is 87, thanked Pen America, founded in 1922 to promote literature and human rights, “for their great work for writers such as myself and others who are free. Pen also works tirelessly on behalf of those writers and journalists who are imprisoned, tortured and totally silenced.”
The author, whose last novel, The Litle Red Chairs, was published in 2015, devoted most of her speech at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to “the importance of literature, the necessity for literature in our unhinged times”.
“Language lives longer than people and therefore its permanence is vital. It moves us from one generation to the next; it’s immortal,” she said. “Writing isn’t elitist: it’s the deepest thing we have. It’s as essential as breathing. It brings other paradoxes to us through language.”
The prize, created in partnership with the Vladimir Nabokov literary foundation, was awarded for the first time last year, to the Syrian poet Adonis. It is intended to reward “a living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship”.
O’Brien, while acknowledging Lolita author Nabokov, after whom her award is named, called him out on his attitude to women. “Mr Nabokov, genius that he was, was quite scathing of women.”
Referring to a remark by Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, O’Brien said: “He says the greatest gift imperative for literature is enchantment, and I agree but add two more words: thralldom and permanence.”
The judges, fellow writers Michael Ondaatje and Diana Abu-Jaber, chose the author, best known for her Country Girls trilogy, for “the absolute perfection of her prose” and her “powerful voice” which had broken down “social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond”.
Faber & Faber is to publish a new novel by O’Brien, Girl, in 2019, inspired by the kidnapping by Boko Haram of almost 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria in 2014. The author spent several weeks in the country researching her story.
Her editor Lee Brackstone said: “In Girl, Edna O’Brien once again proves herself to be one of our most compassionate, stylish, and fearless novelists. The Little Red Chairs has sold over 250,000 copies in two years. In her ninth decade, Edna is producing the greatest work of her staggering career. There is no more urgent writer working today.”
Faber has described Girl as “a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; an escape into the further terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility that awaits a girl who returns home with a child blighted through enemy blood. How do we survive and keep love alive in a barbaric and unforgiving world?”
The poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, Whereas, a piercing rejoinder to the US congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, claimed the night’s book of the year prize, the Pen/Jean Stein Book Award, and its $75,000 purse. Described by judges as a “grand reckoning with language and history”, Whereas was praised for its “elegant and fierce introspection” and “rectifying spirit of restless invention”.
Jenny Zhang won the Pen/Robert W Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her short-story collection Sour Heart, a stark depiction of hardscrabble Chinese American adolescence in New York City. Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa was awarded the Pen/Open Book Award. The Pen/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay was awarded to Ursula K Le Guin, who died last month aged 88, for No Time to Spare, a set of ruminations on ageing and the universe. The accolade was accepted by her son Theo Downes-Le Guin.
The US author Edmund White received the $25,000 Pen/Saul Bellow award for achievement in American fiction as an “LGBT cultural pioneer” creating “honest, beautifully wrought and fiercely defiant books”.
“This year’s awardees represent the near and far corners of the literary landscape, including writers who have shattered barriers of race, class, ethnicity, geography, gender and sexual orientation to bring stories to new audiences, unlock empathy and take places of distinction within our collective canon,” said Pen America executive director Suzanne Nossel. “In times of challenge great literature offers a desperately needed window onto other possibilities. We celebrate these extraordinary writers, and we thank them for keeping us nourished at a time when inspiration is sorely needed.”