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Nilanjana S Roy: In search of the Asian novel

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Franco Moretti, creator of The Atlas of the European Novel, was a man obsessed by the idea that the geography of reading and literature could be, literally, mapped. His theories led him to examine the spread of Cervantes in translation, the overlapping neighbourhoods occupied by characters in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray, and much more.

This year, thanks to the establishment of a new prize, the for South Asian Literature, I had a chance to consider what an Atlas of the might look like. Being on the jury of any literary prize is a little like being a champion dog-tosser or rock-paper-scissors player: the skills involved may be useful, but they are of limited application. There are few careers where the “ability to read and remember plots of twenty 300-page-plus novels, also names of minor characters” is likely to come in useful. It was also humbling to consider that even in this sphere, my fellow jurors — Moni Mohsin, Pakistani novelist and journalist, Ian Jack, former editor of Granta, Lord Matthew Evans, former chairman of Faber & Faber and Amitava Kumar, writer, teacher and critic — were all far more qualified than myself.

We had about 50 novels to read and consider over summer, far less than the Booker’s daunting 140-odd. It was the DSC Prize’s unusual mandate that made the reading list of interest. The DSC backs the Jaipur Literature Festival, and the prize is the brainchild of their director Manhad Narula, who stipulated that it should be for an Asian novel — defined by content, not by the nationality or ethnicity of the author.

Other major literary prizes — France’s Prix Goncourt, the US Pulitzer, the Booker — are bound by some idea of nationality (the Booker is open to members of the Commonwealth) or by language, as in the case of the Cervantes Prize for Spanish writing. To define “South Asianness”, in whatever way, as the eligibility criteria is like creating a prize for the “American novel” or “European fiction”. These are instantly recognisable categories, but perhaps not that easy to define.

What would an Atlas of South Asian literature contain? Far fewer stereotypes than we might expect; and once you get away from the nationality criteria, it’s clear that the Asian novel is being written across at least four continents. There were three-generation family sagas, inevitably; but there was a strong engagement with history, often with its shorter, forgotten chapters, and there was a sense of confidence, especially among the younger writers. We were reading translations alongside works written originally in English, and that felt right too, as we surfed works in Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali and Hindi, often “hearing” the original languages behind the translations.

There were a few rough patches, as with any new prize. A minor oversight in the rules led to far more books published in 2009 than in 2010 being entered; there was some confusion over eligible dates of publication; and we read one novel with great enthusiasm before realising that it was not actually set in South Asia. Some excellent novels by Asian writers, including Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, were not eligible because they had nothing Asian about them, in terms of content and character. But these were relatively small glitches, and most of them should be ironed out in the 2012 edition of the prize.

What was illuminating was the Atlas of South Asian literature that emerged. The Indians and the Pakistanis, as expected, dominated, but the “Asian novel” came from all across the world — the longlist has writers from Canada, the US and Sri Lanka as well as the rest of the subcontinent. Bangladesh, recently robust, missed the bus this year, with no entries; Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar were absent, reflecting the absence of a publishing industry in those countries. Though relatively few translations were entered, two made it on to the longlist, and more should in the years to come; judging works in translation on a par with works in English felt right, because that’s the way readers will read them in the final analysis.

The questions ahead for the DSC Prize are fascinating: just how much or little Asian “content” does a book need to have to qualify, for instance? Would the insertion of one character of Asian origin do, or would you need much more than that? Could we theoretically have a shortlist of South Asian novels written by non-Asian writers, or a shortlist of South Asian novels in languages other than English? (Yes, very theoretically.) Is there really such a thing as South Asian fiction? (Yes, but don’t push me on how to define the beast.) And most of all, will the prize work for readers? I hope so, but the jury’s still out on that one.

The DSC longlisted authors: Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhuri, Chandrahas Choudhury, Musharraf Ali Farooqui, Ru Freeman, Anjum Hassan, Tania James, Manju Kapur, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Neel Mukherjee, H M Naqvi, Salma, Sankar, Ali Sethi, Jaspreet Singh and Aatish Taseer. (The shortlist will be announced in London on October 25.)

nilanjanasroy@gmail.com  

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