Authors from Nigeria, India and China have made the 2007 shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction, which celebrates female writing.
Desai is the daughter of author Anita Desai
Kiran Desai, from India, leads the pack of six with The Inheritance of Loss, which won last year's Booker Prize.
Xiaolu Guo is also nominated for A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a romantic comedy written in deliberately bad English.
The winner, who receives £30,000, will be announced on 6 June in London.
The award celebrates "excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing" and can be given to any female author writing in the English language.
Belfast-born writer Jane Harris has been shortlisted for her debut novel The Observations.
ORANGE PRIZE SHORTLIST
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
Rachel Cusk - Arlington Park
Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss
Xiaolu Guo - A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Jane Harris - The Observations
Anne Tyler - Digging to America
The book tells the story of a girl who runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s and ends up working as a maid for the eccentric wife of an aristocrat.
Two authors make the shortlist for the second time - Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and US novelist Anne Tyler.
Tyler was among the nominees for the first ever Orange Prize in 1996, and is cited this year for her novel Digging to America.
Telling the story of two Korean babies adopted by separate families in the US, Digging to America is the 16th book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a story of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the vicious Nigeria-Biafra war of the 1960s, in which some one million people were killed.
Zadie Smith won the prize last year for On Beauty
Rounding off the shortlist is British author Rachel Cusk, who receives a nomination for her dissection of a typical English suburb, Arlington Park.
Broadcaster Muriel Gray, chairwoman of the judges, called the shortlist "incredibly exciting".
"It represents six beautifully crafted pieces of work that are as accessible as they are fascinating.
"That this outstanding writing should come from such diverse sources that includes five different nationalities, a world famous author, as well as a first-time novelist, is doubly thrilling."
This year's judging panel also includes historian Kathryn Hughes, journalist Maya Jaggi and authors Marian Keyes and Kate Saunders.
Previous winners of the Orange Prize for Fiction include Zadie Smith for On Beauty (2006), Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005) and Andrea Levy for Small Island (2004).