Britain's Smith wins award for gender-bending 'How to Be Both'

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 03, 2015 2:47 PM

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Scottish-born author Ali Smith won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction on Wednesday for her gender-bending novel "How to Be Both" that explores issues of sexual identity from Renaissance times to the present.

Smith's sixth novel, which had been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, focuses on an Italian Renaissance painter who disguises herself as a man in order to pursue her artistic passions, and on a modern teenage girl named George grappling with the death of her mother and with her emerging sexuality.

“Ancient and modern meet and speak to each other in this tender, brilliant and witty novel of grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity,” Chair of Judges Shami Chakrabarti said in a statement announcing the winner.

The prize, awarded to a work of fiction written in English by a woman anywhere in the world, carries a 30,000 pound ($46,000) cash prize.

Smith's critically well received book intertwines the story of the actual Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, who disguised her femininity in order to create frescoes in a palazzo in Ferrara, and the fictional George, who is struggling to cope with the sudden death of her mother, with whom she had traveled to Italy to see del Cossa's works.

The book has the added twist of coming in two editions, one of which begins with del Cossa's story and the other with George's.

"At its heart, 'How to Be Both'... is an eloquent challenge to the binary notions governing our existence. Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognizable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?," Britain's Guardian newspaper said in a review.

Smith, who was born in Inverness in August 1962 and lives in Cambridge, won the Saltire First Book Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award in 1995 for her first collection of stories, "Free Love".

Her novels include "Hotel World", which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize, and "The Accidental" which won the Whitbread Novel Award.

(Editing by Ealph Boulton)