In 2017 United States, in what is otherwise a racial divisive country if you are to believe the news reports, the two most celebrated literary awards were granted to writers of color for their books investigating the racial tensions and immigrant stories that have become integral to the discussion of the American dream. Colson Whitehead (pictured) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his imaginative reworking of a slave escape narrative titled The Underground Railroad. On the website which announced the winners, a caption was attached reading: “For a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” Similarly, Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian migrant to the States herself, won for her refreshing take on the modern day immigrant story about a Cameroonian family trying to make it in New York City while still retaining their roots. This work was titled Behold the Dreamers and won praise around the market. Michael Schaub of NPR reviewed that the novel had “no narrative shortcuts and certainly no manufactured happy endings.”
Having read both of these books myself, I can with wholehearted enthusiasm attest that these reads lived up to their reputations. I may not be a person of color living in America, but I have always been an advocate of the genre ever since my undergraduate thesis on African diasporic literature and the black female body, something that stays with me while I browse the bookshelves in the Waterstone’s several years later and thousands of miles away from my own home.
But what intrigued me most about Mbue’s and Whitehead’s successes were the expansions they provided to the otherwise heavily white literary cannon that has been the pattern in the United States. Granted, this has been changing in the recent years, but it is still considered a change, not an act of normalcy. So what does it mean when two books of race win the most prestigious awards? Well, first it means that the discussion about race is ongoing to the point that the publishing world can capitalize on the conversation. Second, it means that the discussion is going to continue in relevance as these books are passed from reader to reader in search of experiencing what is reported to them as the “must-reads” of the year 2017. What I find most fascinating is that these stories are some of the most universal ones that we are reading about right now – what does this say about the global climate towards immigration? And how are we using literature to delve deeper into another’s experience and find nuggets of truths and humanity that inspire compassion?
If we are going to talk about the symbolic capital that these books reached, however, we should make a final point about the award that each advertised on special edition covers: selection for Oprah’s Book Club. Not only have these works achieve long standing critical success through decades old institutions, but they have been able to resonate within the masses through a more accessible award. And perhaps that is why they have used these acclaims on longer print runs than their other awards.
Social and symbolic capital, once granted, cannot be taken away and it is for that we should recognize just what The Underground Railroad and Behold the Dreamers have to offer in ways of predicting publishing trends – listening to what people want to read – and in ways of the publishing industry joining the conversations that most trouble and divide people in modern day United States.