In a world that seems to be growing more tribal and insular by the day, the fall book award season is taking note of books whose themes run counter to that trend, books that look deeply into the experiences of immigrants and refugees, minorities and other outsiders to power.
The Oct. 5 announcement that the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature would go to British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was something of a reset, after a couple of Nobel literature laureates whose bodies of work were well outside the norm: 2016 winner Bob Dylan's writing is mostly song lyrics, while Russian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who won in 2015, writes books that walk what is, by her own description, a very tenuous and controversial line between fact and fiction.
Ishiguro likes to mash up literary genres, but his seven beautifully crafted books are unquestionably novels, well within the traditional bounds of fiction.
"I'm not a message person," Ishiguro said after the announcement that he had won the $1.1 million award. "It's been important to me that my work works through the emotions."
But his fiction reaches beyond the personal. "Some of the themes that I have tried to tackle in my work — about history, about not just personal memory but the way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from the past — I hope that these kinds of themes will actually be in some small way helpful to the climate we have at the moment," Ishiguro said, speaking in his backyard in London.
The new Nobel laureate has lived in England for most of his life, but he was born in Nagasaki, Japan, emigrating with his family when he was 5. He has spoken in interviews about the experience of growing up between two cultures, and, although his fiction might not be overtly political, he often writes in indirect ways about class, oppression and the other.
His most recent novel, The Buried Giant, is a sort of fable set in fifth century Britain. Roman invaders have abandoned it, but a new wave of conquerors, the Saxons, have moved in. Amid war and genocide, complicated by a dragon, an elderly couple try to find their long-lost son. Ishiguro's 2005 novel, the dystopian horror story Never Let Me Go, revolves around a group of young people whose status as clones "farmed" for their organs is a form of slavery. Even his million-selling The Remains of the Day, a realistic novel set in a manor house in mid 20th century England, probes themes of class and oppression in a dying empire.
Just a couple of days before the Nobel announcement, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize winners for 2017 were announced, and Florida writer Patricia Engel was the fiction winner. (David Wood won in nonfiction for What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars.)
The Dayton is the first and only annual U.S. literary award recognizing the power of the written word to promote peace; previous fiction winners include Junot Diaz, Marlon James, Bob Shacochis and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Engel, who teaches at the University of Miami, won the $10,000 award for her novel The Veins of the Ocean. Reina Castillo, its main character, is, like Engel, Colombian-American, and her family's immigrant experiences shape the novel profoundly. When I reviewed it in 2016, I wrote that it was a book "in which the lost, the exiled and the imprisoned float upon a sea of lush language, searching for a horizon that will offer them hope."
On Oct. 4, the National Book Foundation revealed the five finalists in each of four categories for the 2017 National Book Awards. (The winners, who receive a $10,000 cash prize, will be announced at a ceremony in New York on Nov. 15.)
One surprise in the fiction category was the absence of big names like George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) and Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach). Indeed, several of the finalists were nominated for their debut books.
All of the finalist books in fiction focus on outsider experiences. Elliot Ackerman's Dark at the Crossing is about a man caught up in chaos while trying to cross the border between Turkey and Syria. Lisa Ko's The Leavers is the story of a boy adopted by white parents after his Chinese immigrant mother vanishes. In Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, Korean immigrants grapple with making a new life in Japan.
Carmen Maria Machado's story collection Her Body and Other Parties features dark and sometimes shocking fairy tales about women dealing with sex, power, pleasure and pain. Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a biracial teenager tracking down his own history in contemporary Mississippi.
Machado's and Ward's books are also among the fiction finalists announced in September for the $50,000 Kirkus Prizes. The others are What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, a story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah set in Nigeria whose characters live in the shadow of civil war; White Tears by Hari Kunzru, the tale of two white record producers whose scheme to create a fake "lost" blues record goes awry in a satirical look at racism; and Exit West, Mohsin Hamid's novel of young lovers who become refugees from an unnamed country riven by sectarian violence and religious fundamentalism.
Add up all those diverse novels and story collections, so fearless about exploring all the world through the imagination, and you have an antidote, or at least a distraction, for a time when the politics of fear and exclusion crowd the headlines.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.