A trans woman has been nominated for the Women’s prize for fiction for the first time, with Torrey Peters making the longlist for the £30,000 award for her acclaimed debut Detransition, Baby.
Reviewed in the Guardian as “witty, elegant and rigorously plotted”, Detransition, Baby follows trans woman Reese, her former partner Amy, now Ames, who has detransitioned, and cis woman Katrina, with whom Ames has been having an affair, and who is now pregnant. Prize judge Elizabeth Day described it as “a modern comedy of manners”.
Peters’ longlisting comes after organisers clarified in 2020 that it was open to any “cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone who is legally defined as a woman or of the female sex”. “It’s a prize for women, and trans women are women, so …” said chair of judges and author Bernardine Evaristo.
Akwaeke Emezi, the non-binary transgender author who was nominated for the Women’s prize in 2019, has previously said they would not allow their future books to be entered because organisers had asked for information on their sex as defined “by law”. On Wednesday, organisers said they asked publishers to confirm eligibility “when submitting and confirming again at longlist stage”.
Peters is up against former winner Ali Smith, chosen this time for the last in her quartet of seasonal novels, Summer; and comedian turned novelist Dawn French, picked for her “warm, compassionate, funny” look at motherhood, Because of You.
“The women’s prize is for women’s fiction. It doesn’t say it’s for literary fiction. People sometimes assume that’s what the prize is about, but actually, it’s not, and there are brilliant writers out there who wouldn’t necessarily be classed as literary writers, but they’re really good storytellers,” said Evaristo. “I love the fact that we have Dawn French and Ali Smith, and they both do something very different with their work.”
Susanna Clarke’s first novel since Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Piranesi, also makes the cut, as does Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which opens with two women plotting to kill each other’s husbands. Evaristo called Craig’s novel “a thrilling, rollicking scorching state of the nation novel”.
At 63, French is the oldest novelist on the longlist, and Evaristo criticised the lack of submissions from authors in their 70s and 80s. “In an ideal world, you want writers who are emerging and you want writers at every stage to continue to have good careers, so what happens when they get into their 70s and 80s? Is it that they’re suddenly not published, or they’re not submitted for the prizes?” she asked. “I also noticed that there isn’t much experimental writing being published, according to the books that have been submitted for the prize … Maybe publishers are just risk averse.”
Twins feature strongly on this year’s 16-book longlist. Brit Bennett’s bestseller The Vanishing Half sees an identical twin construct a new identity as a white person because of her light skin. Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground follows 51-year-old twins who still live with their mother. And Annabel Lyon’s Consent sees a studious woman put her life on hold for her thrill-seeking twin sister when she is injured in an accident.
Along with Detransition, Baby, five other debuts made the final lineup. Irish author Naoise Dolan is nominated for Exciting Times, in which a young Irish woman goes to Hong Kong and falls for a man and a woman. Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, which was Booker-shortlisted, is also nominated. Patricia Lockwood is nominated for her first novel, No One Is Talking About This, in which real life intrudes on a woman’s online existence. Raven Leilani is picked for Luster, which follows a 23-year-old black woman who starts a relationship with a middle-aged, married white man. And Cherie Jones is nominated for How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, a tale of murder, abuse and violence in Barbados.
“I bang the drum for black British writing, and there’s still not enough of that being published, but it’s a very diverse list so I’m really happy about that,” said Evaristo.
The Women’s prize longlist is completed with Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, about a journalist covering the story of an apparent virgin birth in the 1950s. Yaa Gyasi is chosen for Transcendent Kingdom, which follows a woman who learns about her family history after an opioid addiction destroys her brother’s life. And Kathleen McMahon is nominated for Nothing But Blue Sky, in which a man reflects on his 20-year marriage after his wife’s sudden death.
Six of the shortlisted authors are British (Chambers, Clarke, Craig, French, Fuller and Smith), while five are American (Bennett, Doshi, Leilani, Lockwood and Peters). Two are Irish (Dolan and McMahon), one Canadian (Lyon), one Barbadian (Jones) and one Ghanaian-American (Gyasi).
Evaristo is joined on the judging panel by podcaster, author and journalist Day, presenter and writer Vick Hope, columnist Nesrine Malik and broadcaster Sarah-Jane Mee. The judges will reveal the shortlist on 28 April and the winner on 7 July.
Running since 1996, after the Booker prize failed to shortlist any women five years earlier, the Women’s prize is intended “to celebrate and promote fiction by women to the widest range of readers possible”. Former winners include Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.