LONDON – Anna Burns won the prestigious Man Booker Fiction Award on Tuesday for "Milkman," a vibrant and violent story about men, women, conflict and power during the years of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland.
Burns is the first writer in Northern Ireland to win the £ 50,000 ($ 66,000) prize, which is open to English-language authors from around the world. He received his trophy from Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a black tie ceremony at the medieval town hall in London.
The 56-year-old Belfast-born novelist said she was "stunned" to have won. Burns said his books took a long time to complete, and that he has often had financial problems since releasing his first novel, "No Bones," in 2001.
"I just wait for my characters to come and tell me their stories, and I can not write until they do," Burns told reporters. "Also, as with many writers, they do not make much money, so that gets in the way of creativity."
Burns said that with his cash prize, "I'll clean up my debts and live on what's left."
The writer said that the germ of the "milkman" appeared to him in the image of a teenager walking down a street in a divided city while reading the novel "Ivanhoe."
The "milkman" is narrated by a book-looking young woman who deals with an older man who uses family ties, social pressure and political allegiances as weapons of coercion and sexual harassment. It was established in the 1970s, but was published in the midst of the global eruption of accusations of sexual misconduct that triggered the "Me too" movement.
"I think this novel will help people think about 'Me Too' and I like novels that help people think about current movements and challenges," said philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who chaired the panel of judges. "But we believe it will last, it's not just about something that is happening right now.
"I think it's a very powerful novel about the damage and danger of rumors," he added.
Burns defeated five other novelists, among them bookie favorites: the ecliptic "The Overstory," centered on the American writer Richard Powers, and "Washington Black," by Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, the story of a slave escaping from a sugar plantation in a hot air balloon.
The other finalists were "The Mars Room," by American novelist Rachel Kushner, who is in a women's prison; "The Long Take" by Robin Robertson, a verse novel about a traumatized D-Day veteran; and the family saga "Everything Else", inspired by the Greek tragedy of the British writer Daisy Johnson, 27 years old.
Founded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers. Americans have been eligible since 2014, and there have been two American winners: Paul Beatty's "The Sellout" in 2016 and George Saunders's "Lincoln in the Bardo" in 2017.
A third consecutive US winner would have rekindled fears among some American writers and editors that the award is becoming too focused on the US. UU But Appiah said that neither the nationality nor the gender of the authors were a factor in the deliberations of the judges on the short list of four women and two men.
"If we had come close to thinking that one of the men on the list was the best, I would not have said, No, guys, we're going to get in trouble for this, more than if we had been drifting towards a American, "he said. "We chose the … most deserving of the award".
The Man Booker has a reputation for transforming the careers of writers, and the one who will leave the field to beat other finalists will always be subject to intense speculation and animated bets. Past winners include Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and Hilary Mantel.
It's likely to bring a big boost to Burns, who has published two previous novels, but it's not a household name.
"Lechero" appears on the printed page with few paragraph marks, which has led some to label it experimental and challenging. But Appiah said the vivid and distinctive language of Belfast in Burns's book "is really worth tasting."
"If you have difficulties, try to read it out loud," he said. "Pleasure really has to do with the way it sounds.
"It's a challenge in the way that a Snowdon climb is a challenge, it's definitely worth it, because the view is excellent when you get to the top."
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