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Wingate Prize shortlist published

The shortlist for this year’s Wingate Prize includes an International Booker prize-winner and Nobel laureate, two first-time published writers and two translated works. Of the seven works of fiction and non-fiction now vying to be declared the best book to deliver the literary award’s mission “to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader”, four explore the Shoah.

“I think I expected a prevalence of books about the Holocaust, but what did surprise me was the range of topics alongside this. It shows that what makes a Jewish book is as multi-faceted and complex as Jewish identity,” chair of judges Dr Aviva Dautch told the JC. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who is not Jewish, is the most feted and famous writer on the list.

Her Wingate entry The Books of Jacob already convinced the Swedish Academy to award her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018, the same year she won the International Booker for her novel Flights. Translated by Jennifer Croft, the 900-page novel charts the life of eighteenth- century self-proclaimed Jewish messiah Jacob Frank. “But what it really traces is the treatment and perception of Jews within Polish history,” said Dr Dautch.

Come to this Court and Cry, a memoir by first-time author and American journalist Linda Kinstler, also explores East European antisemitism, but in her own bloodline. While her mother’s family were Ukrainian Jews, many of them murdered at Babyn Yar, her paternal grandfather Boris Kinstler was a member of the Latvian death squads during the Shoah and reportedly worked for the Soviet secret police after the war.

Jeffrey Veidlinger is the only historian on the list. His exhaustive, meticulously researched In the Midst of Civilised Europe explains how the pogroms in Ukraine, in which more than 100,000 Jews were murdered in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, created the conditions for the Holocaust.

Drawn from dozens of primary sources, diaries and previously classified documents, Simon Parkin’s narrative non-fiction book The Island of Extraordinary Captives tells the story of Britain’s internment camps on the Isle of Man, and how a group of German and Austrian-Jewish refugee artists and academics came to be seen as enemy aliens. The award-winning author is the second non-Jewish writer to make the shortlist.

Yishai Sarid’s novella The Memory Monster, translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan, asks questions about Holocaust education and memorialisation. “It takes the form of a report by a Holocaust educator to the chair of the board of Yad Vashem,” said Dr Dautch. “It doesn’t question the importance of Holocaust education, but does ask about its impact on young Israelis who are going to war themselves. It challenges sacred cows and is incredibly controversial for it.”

Completing the lineup are Israeli-born Omer Friedlander’s debut short story collection The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, an alternately funny and tragic immersion into the particularities of the writer’s homeland, and Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, a novel about a friendship between two college students, one Jewish, the other Korean-Jewish -— and video-gaming.

The novel “is very of the moment, and a wonderful example of the range of Jewish writing out there,” said Dr Dautch. The judges’ biographies and work reflect this diversity, she said. “I’m a poet, Julie Cohen is a romantic novelist, George Prochnik is a Guggenheim Fellow who has written five works of non-fiction, and Sarah Shaffi is a journalist and author. Sarah isn’t Jewish, the rest of us are.”

Alongside this year’s shortlist, Wingate has announced an online hub to increase the range and quality of Jewish writing further still. The Jewish Global Literary Alliance will “equip emerging writers with the tools to write about Jewish identity in a literary way”, said Dr Dautch.

“We’ve seen the effect similar initiatives have had in the BAME community, how they’ve helped writers get on shortlists and win prizes. It’s time to support writers who want to communicate Jewishness.” The project will officially launch at JW3 on 4 May.

The winner of the Wingate Prize will be announced on 12 March.

Karen Glaser