Mexican author Valeria Luiselli has won the 2021 Dublin Literary Award for Lost Children Archive.
The novel, the first the author has written in English, follows an artist couple on a road trip from New York to Arizona with their two children in the heat of summer. As their parents’ relationship frays, the children try to make sense of both their family’s crisis and the larger one engulfing the news: the stories of thousands of children trying to cross the border into the US but getting detained or lost in the desert along the way.
The winner was announced today online by Dublin’s Lord Mayor Hazel Chu at the opening of the International Literature Festival Dublin, which runs until May 30th. The presentation took place at the Irish Consulate in New York City, where Luiselli lives. Consul General Ciarán Madden and Colm Tóibín, who won the award in 2006 for The Master, presented Luiselli with her prize on behalf of its sponsor, Dublin City Council.
Accepting her award, Luiselli spoke passionately about the importance of literature: “I can say, without a hint of doubt, that without books – without sharing in the company of other writers’ human experiences – we would not have made it through these months. If our spirits have found renewal, if we have found strength to carry on, if we have maintained a sense of enthusiasm for life, it is thanks to the worlds that books have given us. Each time, we found solace in the companions that live in our bookshelves.”
The judging panel, which is led by Prof Chris Morash of Trinity College Dublin, and includes Jan Carson, David James Karashima, Dr Rita Sakr, Dr Martín Veiga and Enda Wyley, declared: “While all of the books on this year’s shortlist provided outstanding instances of what the novel can do in the 21st century, the judges felt that one book in particular pushed the boundaries of contemporary fiction, while at the same time telling a compelling story.
“Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive manages to do many things at once. At its most basic level, it is the story of a couple and their children driving across the United States, from New York to the southwest border with Mexico. The parents, who are sound recordists, want to make recordings of absences; she, of the children who have been lost crossing the border, he of the Native Americans who used to live in the area.
“However, woven into this framework are reflections on sound, on silence, a magic realist story read by the children, and artefacts, including an entire chapter made of Polaroid photographs. The result is a richly textured novel that reminds us that the novel is always capable of being pushed in new directions. As the title suggests, this is the novel as archive, as a repository of memory.”
Tóibín said: “Lost Children Archive tells an old story, the one that Cervantes told . . . and Cormac McCarthy, the story of what happens to the human spirit on the road, how a long journey puts in jeopardy what was stable and agreed upon.
“Luiselli has written a novel in which stories spiral. She has rendered her characters with astonishing grace and insight, and through them she has drawn a picture of what they have been driving towards throughout the book, the contested place, where the old rules do not apply, for which a new form of archive is needed.”
The Lord Mayor, who is also patron of the award, said: “This year’s Dublin Literary Award winner is a very important book, with significant themes around family and the things that matter to us most as human beings. I am very proud of our city for providing this opportunity for the libraries of the world to nominate the books that have resonated most with readers. The award helps us to learn about each other and reach a greater understanding of the world, through the insight which literature provides.”
Owen Keegan, CEO of Dublin City Council, said: “I wish to extend huge congratulations to Valeria Luiselli on winning the Dublin Literary Award. I’m immensely proud that Dublin City Council sponsors this international prize, which brings the literature of the world to Dublin, and it was especially important to be able to reach out to international library colleagues to make the Award happen this year.”
Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. Lost Children Archive, which won the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize, is published by 4th Estate in the UK and Vintage Books in the US. With prize money of €100,000, the award is the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English. Luiselli is the first writer from Mexico and the fifth woman to claim the prestigious award in its 26-year history. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth, which won the 2016 LA Times Book Prize for Fiction; the essay collection Sidewalks; and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize.
Uniquely, the award receives its nominations from public libraries in cities around the globe and recognises both writers and translators. Lost Children Archive was nominated by Biblioteca Vila De Gràcia, a public library in Barcelona. The winning novel was chosen from a shortlist of six novels. The others were Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; Apeirogon by Colum McCann; Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Last year’s win er was Anna Burns for Milkman.
As a finale to ILFDublin 2021, Luiselli will discuss her novel with Colm Toíbín, and to take questions from the audience. Book your ticket at https://ilfdublin.com.