• Sunday, February 05, 2023

What does this year's double Booker Prize victory mean for South Asian literature?

It was unexpected for South Asian writers to win both Booker prizes in the same year.
on Dec 02, 2022
double Booker Prize victory

Why isn't there more South Asian fiction published outside of the subcontinent? Is the tide now turning? It's prize material, as this year has demonstrated. In October, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the 2022 Booker prize, while Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and her translator Daisy Rockwell won the International Booker prize for Tomb of Sand. The latter novel was translated from Hindi and was the first south Asian book to receive the £50,000 translation prize. It was unexpected for South Asian writers to win both Booker prizes in the same year.

Of course, as Rockwell points out, such patterns in awards are "sometimes flukes," and recognition of South Asian writers has not come out of nowhere. Last year, for example, Sri Lankan Anuk Arudpragasam's A Passage North was nominated for the Booker Prize. However, Manasi Subramaniam, the editor and publisher of the Indian editions of Karunatilaka and Shree's books, believes that what is happening now is something larger, a "reframing of the global south in the larger literary narrative." She clarifies that several changes over the last few decades have contributed to the current moment, including "diasporic writing, brave independent publishers, a steady shifting of the gaze, translators who have quietly chipped away at excavation projects to expand our collective oeuvre." Still, the work is slow, and the burden frequently falls on the shoulders of individuals and small presses.

Tilted Axis, Tomb of Sand's publisher, is a non-profit press that primarily publishes work by Asian writers. The International Booker Prize saw its first longlisting this year, with three titles on the list: Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur, Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, and Tomb of Sand. Small presses in the UK have been doing the heavy lifting for a long time, championing global literatures in a variety of languages and genres. Tilted Axis' recent success, Rockwell hopes, will "cause other publishers to reconsider their own biases and begin considering more works from writers of colour and the global south."She also mentions that "a number of South Asian literature translators and their agents have been making a concerted push toward greater recognition of the gems of translated South Asian literature beyond the subcontinent."

Kanishka Gupta, the literary agent for all three Booker Prize winners, Rockwell, Shree, and Karunatilaka, recalls Shree and Rockwell telling him that if there were any practising translators on the jury, "it would be difficult for them to ignore a book like Tomb of Sand." This is due to the way it plays with language and preconceived notions of the art and practise of translation. And it has more in common with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida than just a Booker-winning sticker: both books tackle difficult topics - partition, civil war - with refreshing humour and honesty, avoiding stereotypical ways of storytelling about these regions and their histories.

Karunatilaka might not have been published, let alone won awards, if it hadn't been for the generosity of fellow literary Sri Lankans. Michael Ondaatje, the only other Sri Lankan writer to win the UK's most prestigious fiction award, shared the Booker Prize in 1992 with The English Patient. He donated his prize money to establish the Gratiaen Prize, an annual award for the best work of literary writing in English by a Sri Lankan resident.

Chinaman, Karunatilaka's debut novel, won the Gratiaen prize in manuscript form in 2008. Despite this, he failed to find a publisher and self-published it in 2010; a year later, Penguin India picked it up, and Vintage published it in the UK in 2012. Chinaman went on to win the DSC prize for South Asian literature in 2012, as well as the Commonwealth Book Prize in the same year. Nearly a decade later, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was published in India under the title Chats with the Dead, but Karunatilaka struggled to find an international publisher once more. This time, he sent it to his editor friend Natania Jansz, a fellow Sri Lankan who runs the indie press Sort of Books with her husband, Mark Ellingham.

South Asian fiction writers in the diaspora were recognised this year in the 2022 National Book Award. "To my knowledge, no writer of South Asian heritage has ever won the National Book Award - and yet, this year's longlist included not one, not two, but three writers," says Sarah Thankam Mathews, nominated for her buzzy debut All This Could Be Different. Jamil Jan Kochai for The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, stories of Afghanistan and its disapora, and Fatimah Asghar for When We Were Sisters also made the longlist. Karunatilaka's Booker Prize victory, according to Mathews, is a global victory for South Asian writers."Every award won by a South Asian writer sends a message that our creative traditions and stories are important, that we are here, and that we have always been here."

Booker wins in particular are significant in south Asia itself. While Gupta admires the scale and ambition of “India’s Booker”, the JCB prize for Literature, in India, “the only prizes that really make an impact on sales are both Bookers. None of the other UK or US prizes (unless it’s a Pulitzer won by an Indian) has any bearing,” he notes. Indian publishers often wait until a book travels the western prize circuits before picking it up for the Indian market. The flow of movement of literature between the east and the west is not always straightforward or unidirectional; it is messy, and manifests uneven power dynamics. Tomb of Sand “has become something of a phenomenon in India post-Booker, but it has received no awards or prizes there yet”, says Rockwell.

Will the double Booker win have a cascading effect on South Asian writers? Is it too early to tell? These victories are exceptional: few publishers and editors in the West read and publish writers from South Asia. Furthermore, the fact that the majority of South Asian books published in the West are English-language originals perpetuates a distorted view of South Asian literary culture. It undermines the countries' complex colonial histories, the rich multilingual literary spaces of South Asia, and exposes the asymmetrical power dynamics at work.

Book publishing is a business, and prizes highlight its politics and ethics. Looking to the margins - to the work of independent presses, translations, and underprivileged voices - and amplifying these stories and perspectives is always worthwhile. One exceptional, exceptional prize year cannot compensate for years of myopia. "It's taken a lot to get us here, and it's going to take just as much, if not more, to get us further," Subramaniam says.

What would the long-overdue representation and recognition of South Asians in publishing look like? Sustainable change, I believe, would entail large Western publishing houses wholeheartedly and consciously embracing South Asian writing, translated or otherwise. More programmes like PEN Presents, English PEN's new award scheme to support sample translations, which recently announced its inaugural winners with a focus on Indian languages, would be implemented. And it would mean more presses like Tilted Axis doing radical, revolutionary work - tilting and changing how we read the world.

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