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Literature Prize Will Be The 4th Nobel Announced This Week

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In just a few minutes, we learn who won this year's Nobel Prize in literature. The past winners have included Pearl Buck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and many more - Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. NPR's Neda Ulaby has yet to win her Nobel Prize for some reason, but she joins us to talk about what to expect. Hi there, Neda.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. How you doing?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. I guess we should acknowledge at the start that this category has faced a lot of controversy and scandal in recent years.

ULABY: Yeah, it's almost like it should actually be called the Nobel Prize for drama.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ULABY: Just over the past three years, the Swedish Academy fell apart over accusations around one character, a sort of cultural gadfly close to the academy and married to one of its members. He was accused of sexual harassment by the Nobel Prize's secretary, among many others, and convicted of rape in 2018. His wife stepped down that same year in part because she was also suspected of leaking the names of winners to him so he could sell them to bookies.

INSKEEP: Ow. And haven't they also faced criticism over the kinds of writers they choose for this honor?

ULABY: There has been a pronounced tendency to favor, let's say, lesser-known Europeans. So in 2017, they chose someone much more popular - Bob Dylan. People didn't like that. They accused the judges of selling out. Then last year, the winner was an Austrian playwright, Peter Handke, exactly the kind of person the Swedish Academy usually loves - European, avant-garde, super highbrow - but in this case, he's also an apologist for the Serbian genocide against Bosnians that happened in the 1990s.

INSKEEP: This is beginning to sound like an award that maybe some people wouldn't want. But I assume writers would still like it, so is there an obvious frontrunner?

ULABY: Well, not really, since nothing in 2020 is simple.

INSKEEP: Right.

ULABY: So things are bound to be hairy and complicated, even if they pick someone super popular and not European, someone like maybe Haruki Murakami from Japan, who people might know from his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; or a likeable Canadian, someone like Anne Carson or Margaret Atwood. All three of them are favorites with the bookies this year, but the bookies are usually wrong.

And let me just add that a Canadian has won within the past decade. Alice Munro won in 2013. But it's been a really, really long time since any Black writer has won. Toni Morrison won in 1993, and that was nearly 30 years ago.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ULABY: It's been nearly 20 years since a South Asian has won, more than 30 since an Arab has won. And the last two times anyone from the continent of Africa won a literature Nobel, they were white writers - Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. The most recent native Spanish speaker was Mario Vargas Llosa, and that was 10 years ago.

INSKEEP: I do notice that Nobel Prizes tend to follow the news, to some extent, and that makes me wonder if racial reckoning in the United States, debates about diversity might prompt the Nobel committee to get their list a little more diverse.

ULABY: There's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't. In the past nine years, the Nobel Prize for literature has gone to seven white people and two Asians. The prize is supposed to celebrate literature from all corners of the globe. Now, just in this past year, the Swedish Academy has added two new members, both young women. So it's possible its taste in world fiction will have expanded.

INSKEEP: Anybody you're rooting for, Neda?

ULABY: Well, I have to admit that, as the daughter of a Syrian, I sort of feel an allegiance to the Syrian poet Adunis, who's been a Nobel contender since I started covering the literature prize almost 20 years ago. And many of my colleagues on the arts desk are rooting for the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who's also a longtime Nobel bridesmaid.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll find out shortly who it is. NPR's Neda Ulaby. Thanks.

ULABY: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.