Cheers and standing ovations. It’s never happened before in the history of the German Book Prize.
After becoming the first nonbinary author to win the prize for best novel of the year for Blutbuch — German for “Blood Book” — Kim de l’Horizon surprised an astonished audience at Frankfurt’s city hall with a spectacular performance: a teary thank you to their mother and a song.
And then, they grabbed an electric razor and ran it through their dark curls: “This prize is not just for me,” said de l’Horizon. “I think the jury also chose this text to send a signal against hate, for love, for the struggle of all people who are oppressed because of their bodies.”
In its statement, the jury praised the literary innovation of Blutbuchwhich it said was provocative and inspiring.
Naturally, the backlash didn’t take long. Already at the celebration following the award ceremony, some visitors expressed irritation and annoyance. And unsurprisingly, also on social media, where many of the comments were obvious knee-jerk reactions.
Have the “woke” and the gender activists now also hijacked the German Book Prize? The debate was not about the book’s literary quality.
The sometimes savage reactions, however, offer an inkling of the resistance experienced by people who do not define themselves as men or women, who reject an either/or for themselves. And that is precisely what the award-winning novel is about.
Courageous decision by jury
The narrator enters Blutbuch defines themselves — like Kim de l’Horizon — as a nonbinary person. But how does one assert oneself in a society that insists on fixed roles? The book outlines all the pain of self-discovery for which there is not even a language. How can we write about people without pinning them down to one gender?
Sometimes the language Kim de l’Horizon chooses is poetic and delicate, then suddenly vulgar and distant. A flow of characters and thoughts that sweeps you along. This power of language and this courage have been recognized. In a world in which many certainties are currently eroding, the idea that gender roles are also not fixed apparently terrifies many people.
The fact that a book, which celebrates precisely this fluidity while breaking all the rules, has been named best novel of the year is a courageous decision on the part of the jury.
Because it proves how vibrant, exciting and different German-language literature can be.
This opinion piece was originally written in German.