9th June 2016 #DubLitAward
Family Life by Akhil Sharma wins the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award
American author Akhil Sharma has won the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award for his novel Family Life. The Award is organised and sponsored by Dublin City Council and at €100,000 is the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English. Uniquely, the Award receives its nominations from public libraries in cities around the globe and recognises both writers and translators. The winner was announced at a ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House today.
Akhil Sharma was born in Delhi, India, and moved with his family to the United States when he was eight. He is also the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in New York City and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark.
The winning novel was chosen from a total of 160 titles, nominated by libraries in 118 cities in 43 countries. It was first published in the USA by W.W. Norton and in the UK by Faber & Faber. The shortlist of ten novels, as chosen by an international panel of judges, included novels from five continents. Akhil Sharma is the third American author to win the prize in its 21 year history.
“I am delighted that Dublin City Council is now the full owner and sponsor of the International DUBLIN Literary Award”, said Ardmhéara / Lord Mayor and Patron, Críona Ní Dhalaigh. “Initiatives such as this Award have consolidated Dublin’s position as a centre of literary excellence on the world stage. Dublin’s rich literary and cultural life makes Dublin a great destination for tourists, for students, and for overseas businesses, and indeed adds to the quality of life for all of us. ”
Family Life tells the story of eight-year-old Ajay, whose family move from Delhi to America in 1978. America to the Mishras is everything they could have imagined and more: life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life.
Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
Commenting on his win, Akhil Sharma said: “To be acknowledged by people I respect is a strange thing. I can’t say I fooled them. I feel abashed by this honor.”
“Family Life tells a story of hopes dashed and ambition thwarted against a backdrop of emigration and displacement”, said Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian. “Akhil Sharma, our 21st winner, joins a unique creative collective. Their stories delve deep into personal and family dynamics and bring us memorable narrators, singular voices that stay in our imaginations, the mark of all great storytellers.”
Akhil Sharma received a cheque for €100,000. The prize money was presented to the winner by Owen Keegan, Chief Executive of the Award’s founders and sponsors, Dublin City Council. Dublin City has a long and rich literary heritage as well as a thriving living literary scene, and was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2010.
The 2016 judging panel, which includes Irish author, Carlo Gébler, commented: “Suffering and the struggle to ameliorate suffering are not unknown in fiction but Family Life pulls off the extraordinary feat of showing them in their correct alignment. Closing the book, having known this mix of light and dark, you are left with the sense that while reading you were actually at the core of human experience and what it is to be alive. This is the highest form of achievement in literature. Few manage it. This novel does. Triumphantly. Luminously. Movingly. ”
Family Life was nominated by India International Centre Library, New Delhi and by Jacksonville Public Library, USA, who commented:
“Sharma’s plain style, its gaps and fissures and mighty sense of lack, is both proof of the inability of words to render grief and a demonstration that they can do exactly that.”
“Beautifully hypnotic, Sharma’s novel revolves around the ups and downs of a young boy, Ajay, who is practically orphaned when tragedy strikes his family. Alternating between gut wrenching emotion and a child’s selfish, dark humour, Ajay learns to navigate his family’s new normal, sharing his observations with a brutal honesty.”
The 2016 shortlist included four novels in translation and authors from America (Dave Eggers, Jenny Offill, Marilynne Robinson and Akhil Sharma); Brazil (Michel Laub); France and Rwanda (Scholastique Mukasonga); Germany (Jenny Erpenbeck); Ireland (Mary Costello); Jamaica (Marlon James); Spain (Javier Cercas).
All the shortlisted books, as well as copies of the 160 novels nominated for the 2016 Award, are available to borrow from Dublin Public libraries.
The Judging Panel’s Citation of Family Life
A novel is a collection of facts that just happen to have been made up. As the reader reads they stream in to the reader’s imagination and form a virtual equivalent of what was in the writer’s head. The efficacy of this transaction is in direct ratio to the veracity of the author’s facts. The better they are, the sharper the world that takes shape in the reader’s psyche. As readers we know this. Mediocre texts generate fuzzy chimeras, while more authoritative narratives so convince we can talk about the characters in the story, for example, just as we talk about our friends because they are as real as our friends. But beyond these is an even higher kind of novel that does more than engage. This kind occupies you so absolutely that while you read and for a while after you finish, the specificities of your own life don’t exist because they have been supplanted by the specificities of the author’s invented world. This kind of usurpation is the greatest pleasure a reader can know and Family Life by Akhil Sharma is one of those rare novels that does this.
The narrative of Family Life is thus: the Mishra’s – mother, father and two sons, Birju and his younger brother Ajay (who tells the story and is the novel’s pivot) emigrate from India to the US in 1978. For Ajay’s older brother, Birju, the New World is initially a triumph until an accident in a swimming pool causes catastrophic brain damage, after which he needs twenty-four care. Initially he receives this in medical settings, but then he goes home and is cared for by his parents and his brother. The story of Birju’s care is the kernel of the novel, it’s living heart.
As a reading experience Family Life desolates and infuriates. It prompts questions too. Why should the suffering rich get better care than the suffering rest? Isn’t all human suffering equal? However, alongside its subtle interrogation of inequality (this isn’t a febrile work of social criticism) the novel also celebrates the Mishra family’s achievement. For all their imperfections, and they have plenty, (there are no paragons in this novel), somehow they cope and somehow they meet Birju’s needs, which is a kind of triumph and, for a reader, it is profoundly consoling that they manage this.
Suffering and the struggle to ameliorate suffering are not unknown in fiction but Family Life pulls off the extraordinary feat of showing them in their correct alignment. Closing the book, having known this mix of light and dark, you are left with the sense that while reading you were actually at the core of human experience and what it is to be alive. This is the highest form of achievement in literature. Few manage it. This novel does. Triumphantly. Luminously. Movingly. All hail Family Life by Akhil Sharma.