I live practically on the border between Switzerland and France – an area characterised by Lake Geneva, two mountain chains (Jura and the Alps) and a common language: French. Not surprisingly, there are a number of joint cultural initiatives in the area, not least of which the annual Lettres frontière prizes. Lettres frontière is an association seeking to promote links and exchange of ideas between authors and publishers from the Rhône-Alpes area of France and French-speaking Switzerland (Suisse romande). Of course, the mission is implicitly to make them better-known throughout the area, but also beyond. Every year, ten authors (five from France, five from Switzerland) are shortlisted out of an initial list of around 200 entries (for more details about their selection criteria – in French- see the website).
It’s tempting to write this off as a quaint little local pat on the back. However, past winners have included Hubert Mingarelli in 2002, Pascal Garnier in 2007 and Metin Arditi in 2012.
This year’s two winners are both women, I’m delighted to say. There is one winner for each country, to avoid political argy-bargy: ‘Sybille, une enfant de Silésie’ (Sybille, A Child from Silesia) by Bettina Stepczynski (Switzerland) and ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ (Don’t step on my soul with your shoes) by Paola Pigani (France).
Both are about the Second World War or its immediate aftermath. Both are giving voice to populations that have been more or less forgotten or ignored. The first is about the forced displacement of Germans in the Polish region of Silesia after the war; the second is about the internment of gypsies in labour camps during the war.
Other shortlisted authors:
On the French side, a delightful variety of subjects and styles:
Chantal Thomas with a historical novel about an exchange of princesses between France and Spain in the 18th century; Florence Seyvos with a novel about family, friendship and Buster Keaton; Lorette Nobécourt’s biography of medieval mystic Hildegarde de Bingen; Jean-Daniel Baltassat about Stalin’s chaise-longue (or divan).
On the Swiss side, a combination of the predictable and the truly experimental.
Françoise Matthey poetical book inspired by 15th century mystic Nicolas de Flue; Nicolas Couchepin’s novel about an unusual family called Mensch; Roland Buti with a coming-of-age novel about the end of the agricultural era in the 1970s in Switzerland; Antonio Albanese’s playful exploration of 50 words and the concept of free will.
To note: 4 of the 5 shortlisted on the French side were women authors, as were two of the Swiss writers. Not a bad proportion!