Interview: Man Booker International Winners Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft share the £50,000 Man Booker International Prize for a book jurors say ‘flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals.’

Author Olga Tokarczuk, left, and translator Jennifer Croft are the winners of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for ‘Flights’ from Fitzcarraldo Editions. Image: Booker Foundation

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Flights’ of Fancy: ‘Still Actual’

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and American translator Jennifer Croft have won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize tonight (May 22) for Flights at a ceremony at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. A total 108 titles were submitted this year.

In winning the coveted award, the era-leaping Flights has made a 10-year jump of its own into a new chance for audiences to find it in English.

“I’m surprised, to be honest,” Tokarczuk tells Publishing Perspectives from the reception in London. “I was convinced that the time for this book was past because it was published in Poland in 2008. In our work, you know, novels have very short lives. They’re living only for a few months and then new books come and other writers come.

“I’m very happy because this book now has gained a new level as a universal story about traveling, about movement, about mobility,” she says. 

“The book now feels still actual.”

In the UK, Flights has been published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. And Penguin Random House’s Riverhead Books is to release the American edition on August 14, also in Croft’s translation. Tokarczuk said she hopes to be in the States in September in association with the release.

As is the tradition of the Man Booker International Prize, the author and translator evenly divided the purse of £50,000 (US$67,171), and each also received £1,000 for being shortlisted, as well. This prize focuses solely on works in translation into English. It is given out by the Booker Foundation, now celebrating its 50th year, which also awards the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

‘Nothing Was Obvious With This Book’

US cover art. Release date August 14

The 56-year-old Tokarczuk is a native of Sulechow, Poland, and was the 2015 winner of the Brueckepreis, as well as a laureate of Warsaw’s highest literary honor, the Nike in 2009 for Flights. She co-hosts a small literary festival near her home in Lower Silesia in southern Poland, and she says that she sees this work as standing near the middle of her canon of eight novels so far.

A key part of its importance to her lies in its daring form, the linked fragments, as they’re called. As described for its Fitzcarraldo iteration, the book’s teeming narratives and storylines are “interspersed with short bursts of analysis and digressions on topics ranging from travel-sized cosmetics to the Maori.”

There are, to name a few, “the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, discovering the Achilles tendon. From the 18th century, there’s a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death in spite of his daughter’s ever more desperate protests, as well as the story of Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw, stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt.

“From the present there are the trials and tribulations of a wife accompanying her much older professor-husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands. And there’s the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation.”

“We’re living in such a crazy world that we need to redefine what a novel is for us.”Olga Tokarczuk

All of this, Tokarczuk said, means that “Nothing is obvious with this book,” making it long shot, in her opinion, for the prize she’s now celebrating.

“I started looking for a new form for the novel,” she said, when she began work on Flights. “We’re living in such a crazy world that we need to redefine what a novel is for us. It’s impossible to tell the story” of the book “from beginning to end, in a linear way.

“I started to think more about just jumping from one point to the other. It’s like opening the windows on your computer, you have so many spaces. Or it’s like turning on your television–there’s another metaphor–you can jump from one channel to another.

“And that was the effect, the outcome of my thinking about the novel. Of course it was shocking for some readers.”

A winner’s chuckle catches up with her: “But I think that I was right.”

Ironically, she says, the form she developed for Flights isn’t something she’s returned to since the release of the book a decade ago. “It’s funny, but no. But I still have this idea in my head for later on. But I had a signed agreement with my publishing house for just a [more traditional] novel. So that’s Drive Your Plow Through the Bones of the Dead, which will be translated soon by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

“And then the next step is my magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, which Jenny [Croft] is translating.”

From a video produced by the Man Booker International Prize about Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Flights’ and Jennifer Croft’s translation

Replicating Tokarczuk’s Research
“When I was translating ‘Godzone,'” a section of Flights, “it brought me to tears. And I kept thinking about it. I had nightmares about it. It really affected me very deeply.”Jennifer Croft

In addition to Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, the translation of which Croft says she’s finishing soon, she’s also working on a collection of short stories by the Argentinian author Federico Falco.

Jennifer Croft, 36, is American originally from Oklahoma. She’s the recipient of a Fulbright grant, and has received funding from PEN and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also has won the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and translates from Spanish and Ukrainian as well as from Polish. She lives in Los Angeles and is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

“Olga and I are friends,” she says in a conversation from the Victoria & Albert after the awards ceremony, “and we also work independently. So I didn’t ask a lot of questions while I was translating Flights, but of course she saw the draft.

“Knowing her is helpful in a translation. I’ve read her for a long time. But we don’t go back and forth a lot when we collaborate, as I do with some of my other authors.”

In terms of the challenges of Flights, “The hardest part was also the best part,” Croft says, “and that’s that Olga is such an open and curious person. She never shies away from challenges, herself. And in the book, there are stories set in many far-flung places and in other times. Historical fiction isn’t something I’ve read much of, even though I have an MFA and a PhD in comparative literature” from the University of Iowa and Northwestern University, respectively.

“But I prefer contemporary fiction, and often that’s not set in the 17th or 18th century. Olga is fine with that and does the research. So I had to do that research, as well, and that was the most challenging part for me.”

One of the things that the author points out to Publishing Perspectives is that to some readers, Flights appears to be a collection of very short stories rather than a novel. While this isn’t her intention, the book does have an extensive table of contents listing such disparate section titles as “The World in Your Head,” “Your Head in the World,” “Cabinet of Curiosities,” “Everywhere and Nowhere,” The Psychology of an Island,” “Belly Dance,” “Plane of Profligates,” “Air Sickness Bags,” and “Amphitheatre in Sleep.”

Croft says that for her, the passage named “Godzone” is the most compelling. It’s about a Polish woman who emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager but must now return to Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high-school sweetheart.

“When I was translating ‘Godzone,'” Croft says, “it brought me to tears. And I kept thinking about it. I had nightmares about it. It really affected me very deeply.”

The 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist

Commentary on ‘Flights’
“Exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament–where only plastic escapes mortality.”Lisa Appignanesi on 'Flights'

As reported last summer by Publishing Perspectives, the five-person jury for the Man Booker International this year comprises:

  • Lisa Appignanesi OBE, author and cultural commentator
  • Michael Hofmann, poet, reviewer and translator from German
  • Hari Kunzru, author of five novels including The Impressionist and White Tears
  • Tim Martin, journalist and literary critic
  • Helen Oyeyemi, author of novels, plays and short stories including The Icarus Girl

In the jury’s rationale for selecting Tokarczuk’s and Croft’s Flights, Appignanesi–who announced the prize this evening–writes, “Our deliberations were hardly easy, since our shortlist was such a strong one. But I’m very pleased to say that we decided on the great Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk as our winner.

“Tokarczuk is a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache. In Flights, brilliantly translated by Jennifer Croft, by a series of startling juxtapositions she flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament–where only plastic escapes mortality.”

And in his prepared statement for the press, Man Group CEO Luke Ellis says, “Along with my colleagues at Man Group, I would like to congratulate Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft, as well as each of the shortlisted authors and translators.

“As a firm, we welcome and encourage diversity and difference across our business. The Man Booker International Prize plays an important role in celebrating extraordinary fiction in translation, and we are proud to support the prize as it continues to bring the breadth and depth of global literary talent to the attention of readers worldwide.”

The Man Group is an active investment management firm that also sponsors the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Our regular readers will recall that in addition to Tokarczuk and Croft, the shortlisted authors and translators for the Booker International Prize this year were:

  • Author Virginie Despentes, translator Frank WynneVernon Subutex 1 (France), MacLehose Press
  • Author Han Kang, translator Deborah SmithThe White Book (South Korea), Portobello Books
  • Author László Krasznahorkai, translator John BatkiOttilie Mulzet, and George SzirtesThe World Goes On (Hungary), Tuskar Rock Press
  • Author Antonio Muñoz Molina, translator Camilo A. RamirezLike a Fading Shadow (Spain), Tuskar Rock Press
  • Author Ahmed Saadawi, translator Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad (Iraq), Oneworld

Below is a video produced by the Booker Foundation with comments from jurors about Flights.

More of Publishing Perspectives’ coverage of the Man Booker International Prize is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.