Parul Sehgal talks about growing up in a house where fiction was contraband - and why the International Booker is the literary award with the widest scope
Parul Sehgal is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously, she was a book critic at the New York Times, where she also worked as a senior editor and columnist. She has won awards from the Silvers Foundation, the New York Press Club, and the National Book Critics Circle for her criticism. She teaches in the graduate creative-writing program at New York University.
Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it?
I’ve always found it to be the most interesting literary award going, the award with the widest scope, the award that brings me the news. The news of writers and translators, of course, but also of techniques and traditions, fresh strategies of narration and memory, fresh possibilities for the novel. I’m thrilled to be a part of it this year.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?
I read quickly, constantly, unsystematically, and - like all of us with small children - with constant interruption. Short stories are very good for this kind of grazing, and I’ve returned to some old favourites lately to be struck all over again by what a potent and demanding form it is, how intolerant of error, its closeness to other kinds of performance.
Our conversations bore down into such fundamental, and alluring, questions of literary pleasure and worth - how it is achieved, and why it matters.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader - what did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?
Fiction was contraband in my childhood home, deemed a dangerous distraction from our studies. Naturally this approach produced absolute maniacs, demon-readers. We gorged in secret on whatever we could find, whatever seemed most corrupting. My first (and enduring) love was sparked by flap copy that teased tales of duplicity and dark secrets in marriage. A curious description of Oscar Wilde’s collected plays. I’m grateful for it.
Tell us about your favourite International Booker Prize-nominated book from previous years, and why you like it.
Without any hesitation: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, a debut novel written by a poet and part-time dairy farmer, and winner of the 2020 Booker International Prize. Gorgeous and horrifying in equal measure, and one of the most truthful evocations of childhood I’ve ever read. It remains branded on my brain.
Fiction was deemed a dangerous distraction from our studies. Naturally this approach produced absolute maniacs, demon-readers.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize, and is there anything you’re not looking forward to?
I’ve relished getting to know my fellow judges, their sensibilities and considerations. Our conversations bore down into such fundamental, and alluring, questions of literary pleasure and worth - how it is achieved, and why it matters.
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the International Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
Good books invent their own criteria. I’m on the hunt for those that will stretch my notions of what fiction can and should do.