Shokoofeh Azar is among the 13 writers, and Iran’s first, to be on the Booker Prize International longlist

Shokoofeh Azar, Iran writers on Booker Prize International longlist, Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree

Shokoofeh Azar

“We are not the first people to have destroyed ourselves; with a city where all devices of felicity were present,” reads the epigraph of The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree, the first novel by Iranian writer Shokoofeh Azar to have been translated into English — from Persian, by an anonymous translator. The novel, set in Iran in the decade after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been longlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize, which was announced on Thursday, along with 12 other works of fiction translated into English from different languages.

Azar, 48, who has been living in Australia (Melbourne) as a political refugee since 2011, becomes the first Iranian author to have been recognised by the £50,000 prize, which is split between the winning author and translator. Last year, Jokha Alharthi, 41, became the first writer from Oman, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, to have won the award for her second novel, Celestial Bodies, published in India by Simon & Schuster.

The epigraph to Azar’s novel is a quote from Persian filmmaker and playwright Bahram Beizai’s Manifest of Desolation. Like Beizai, one of the pioneers of the Iranian New Wave — along with Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui and Masoud Kimiai — Azar has been chronicling a nation coming to terms with the brutalities of the past, and the continuing erosion of beauty in the daily lives of its people. Her novel, like the works of these masters of cinema, embodies Iranian life in a state of constant “oscillation”, bringing into play “opposing poles” — like life and death, religion and politics, happiness and sorrow, conflict and peace — to evoke the extent of damage by an oppressive political regime.

Shokoofeh Azar, Iran writers on Booker Prize International longlist, Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree

Cover of Shokoofeh Azar's book

The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree is narrated by the ghost of a 13-year-old girl, Bahar, whose family is forced to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village. But their hopes for preserving their intellectual freedom as well as their lives, end only in despair as they seek refuge in the country’s wilderness.

Azar has been a huge admirer of the Booker Prize, known as the Man Booker till last year, and hoped to win it one day ever since she was a child. She has devoured the Booker-winning novels, translated into Persian. The longlist brings her a step closer to her dream. She feels “happy and honoured” to be the first Iranian nominated for the Booker International Prize. “Booker is a literary prize that many writers aspire to win because it gives their work global acclaim. I also believe that Persian literature, which has a history that dates back thousands of years, deserves to be known in the world through its fiction,” says Azar, the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road.

Other writers on the longlist include two from France (Emmanuelle Pagano and Michel Houellebecq); two from Argentina (Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and Samanta Schweblin); and one each from Norway (Jon Fosse), Georgia (Nino Haratischvili) Germany (Daniel Kehlmann), Mexico (Fernanda Melchor), Japan (Yoko Ogawa), The Netherlands (Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Spain (Enrique Vila-Matas) and South Africa (Willem Anker).

The shortlist will be announced on April 12 and the winner on May 19.

The panel of five judges whittled down 124 works of fiction to the 13 on the longlist. The jury chair, Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, while announcing the award, said that the lives captured in the novels on the longlist varied from the epic to the everyday. “In times that increasingly ask us to take sides, these works of art transcend moral certainties and narrowing identities, restoring a sense of the wonderment at the expansive and ambiguous lot of humanity,” he said.