Valeria Luiselli wins $51K Folio Prize for best literary work of the year

Her 2019 novel, Lost Children Archive, was inspired by her work with young migrants on the Mexico-U.S. border. 
Lost Children Archive is a novel by Valeria Luiselli. (Knopf, Diego Berruecos-Gatopardo)

Valeria Luiselli has won the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize for her novel Lost Children Archive.

The annual £30,000 ($51,560.92 Cdn) prize recognizes the best literary work of the year, in any form. This year's award was presented at its first digital ceremony in light of the coronavirus outbreak, with all the judges' comments shared live on Twitter. Luiselli is the first woman to receive the award.

Lost Children Archive is inspired by Luiselli's work with young migrants on the Mexico-U.S. border. It follows a family road trip from New York to Arizona that grows tense when news of the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border emerges. 

In 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli began volunteering as an interpreter for young Central American asylum-seekers facing deportation. She speaks with Gillian Findlay about the conditions children are fleeing, their dangerous journey across Mexico, and what happens once they enter the American justice system. 21:58

It is Luiselli's third novel, but her first written in English.

Lost Children Archive was also longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction.

The 2020 prize was judged by British poet and broadcaster Paul Farley, and novelists Nikita Lalwani and Ross Raisin.

"We're all thrilled and delighted to be able to celebrate this genuinely original and bravura performance of a novel: a road trip, a documentary, a portrait of a family and of the American borderlands, and a journey into the idea of home and belonging doesn't even begin to do justice to this singular, teeming, extraordinary book," said Farley, of the unanimous decision.

British writer Zadie Smith and two-time Folio Prize finalist Ben Lerner were also among the finalists for the 2020 award.

Smith was nominated for her first collection of genre-spanning short stories Grand Union. It features both previously published works and 11 new stories meditating on race, class, relationships and gender roles.

Lerner was a finalist for his coming-of-age novel The Topeka School that tells the story of a family dealing with past trauma and navigating the challenges of raising a son in a culture of toxic masculinity.

While several Canadians have been nominated for the Rathbones Folio Prize since its inception in 2014, including Madeleine Thien in 2017, Rachel Cusk and Miriam Toews in 2015 and Anne Carson in 2013, none have won the prize.

British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus won the 2019 prize for his debut poetry collection The Perseverance.

Other past winners include Hisham Matar for the memoir The Return, Akhil Sharma for the novel Family Life and Richard Lloyd Parry for the nonfiction book Ghosts of the Tsunami.

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