International Dublin Literary Award: Anna Burns becomes first Irish woman to win €100,000 prize
Troubles novel has already won Man Booker and Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prizes
Anna Burns: “To go from being a wee girl haggling over library cards with my siblings, my friends, neighbours, my parents and my aunt, to be standing here today receiving this award is phenomenal for me.” Photograph: Eleni Stefanou
Set in Troubles-era Belfast, Milkman has already been honoured with a number of awards, including the 2018 Man Booker Prize and, last week, the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize.
The judging panel said it was a “unanimous decision” and praised the novel as a “tour-de-force” and a “remarkable achievement”.
Belfast-born Burns becomes the first Irish woman writer and the first from north of the Border to receive the award in its 25-year history.
She said it was an “extraordinary honour – especially given the fantastic list I find myself on” and she was “thrilled to bits” with the “excitement of it all”.
The €100,000 award, which is sponsored by Dublin City Council, is the most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English.
It receives its nominations from public libraries around the world, with Milkman nominated by public libraries in the UK, US and Germany, as well as Limerick City and County libraries.
The award was announced in Dublin and in the Irish Embassy in London on Thursday morning. Due to the coronavirus pandemic Burns was unable to travel from her home in England to Dublin for the ceremony, but was presented with her award by Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill.
“To go from being a wee girl haggling over library cards with my siblings, my friends, neighbours, my parents and my aunt, to be standing here today receiving this award is phenomenal for me, and I thank you all again for this great honour,” she said.
She thanked the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, and Dublin City Council for being the “patron and host of this generous award.
“I salute them for representing Dublin’s position at the cultural heart of worldwide literature,” she said.
“Libraries have always been important to me. I have prominent memories of my childhood Saturdays when I would go to the library with my aunt. There seemed to be a black market in library tickets when I was growing up, nobody seemed to have their own but people would have three to five cards and come out with nine to 15 books.”
The Lord Mayor sent her “huge congratulations” to the winner, describing her as a “massively talented writer” and Milkman as a “wonderful book”.
“I was so delighted to open that envelope and see Milkman written on the card,” she said.
Narrated by 18-year-old Middle Sister, the novel depicts the violence of the Troubles and the control it exerts over people’s lives, not least the narrator’s own, as she attempts to resist the unwanted attention of a sinister older man known as the “Milkman”.
It was chosen as the winner from a shortlist of 10 novels, eight of them written by women, including Canada’s Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan for Washington Black and US National Book Award winner Sigrid Nunez for The Friend, as well as three novels in translation.
The panel of judges was chaired by Prof Chris Morash, the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College, Dublin, and included critic Niall MacMonagle, Scottish author Zoë Strachan, Catalan writer Yannick Garcia, English writer Cathy Rentzenbrink; and Shreela Ghosh from India, founding director of the Freeword Centre in London.
‘Reading this book is an immersive experience,” they said. “Once experienced, Anna Burns’ Milkman will never be forgotten. The reader becomes the world of the book. There was simply no other novel like it on the longlist ... We read it with huge admiration and gratitude. When we finished it, we felt enriched, informed, wiser.
“A description of what this original book is about fails to do it justice. Its brilliance lies in its compelling, questioning voice, its strong individual, resilient narrator, its evocation of place, its threatening and sinister atmosphere, its description of what Burns calls lives of ‘nervous caution’.
“Milkman soon emerged as a frontrunner and naming it our eventual winner was a unanimous decision,” they said.
Burns is the fifth Irish writer to win the award. Previous winners include Colm Tóibín for The Master in 2006; Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin (2011); Kevin Barry for City of Bohane (2013); and Mike McCormack for Solar Bones (2018).