The definition of South Asia is not permanently fixed,” publisher and writer Urvashi Butalia observed recently. Neither, by implication, is the definition of what puts India in the term “Indian writing”, and in different ways, three separate Indian/Asian prizes are looking for new ways to populate the shelf of South Asian literature.
For the Vodafone Crossword, now over a decade old, the battle over the years has been twofold. How do you identify a writer as Indian? And how do you find the right balance between encouraging new, or local, writers and not penalising those who have done well in markets outside India? These may seem like esoteric questions, but the results are reflected in the prize shortlists — and that, whether the general reader is aware of the processes involved or not, determines whether a literary prize will stand or fall in the long run.
Historically, prizes that have pushed an ideological or political agenda haven’t done well. The only test of whether a literary prize is working as it should or not isn’t reflected in the number of struggling writers it supports or honours; any prize, from the Pulitzer to the Crossword, will ultimately be judged by whether it consistently yields good reading lists.
The Crossword opened up the prize a few years ago to writers who could be considered Indian —William Dalrymple being the most prominent example — by dint of length of stay in the country, or some evidence of Indian origin. The problem with this sort of criteria, as the Crossword and other literary prizes have discovered, is that it turns the prize administrators into a quasi-customs office, with the job of scrutinising the passports of writers — and this doesn’t work. This year, Dalrymple wasn’t eligible to be considered in the non-fiction category, since he’s not an Indian citizen. I understand the dilemma the Crossword faces, but the result is that their shortlists risk being slanted in one direction or the other: either too insular or too inclusive.
(A full list of shortlisted Crossword titles is available at: http://asiawrites.blogspot.com/2010/07/vodafone-crossword-book-award-2009.html.)
The Man Asian Literary Prize is, similarly, moving past the teething troubles of the early years. One of its aims, and a noble one, was to encourage emerging, talented writers who hadn’t been published yet. The outcome of accepting unpublished manuscripts for consideration, though, was that the gap between the announcement of the winners/shortlisted authors and the availability of their books became a gulf.
The memory of the general reader is short; most of us want to buy books the moment a shortlist is announced. This year, the Man Asian has moved back to accepting only books that are already published — which should give it a more reader-friendly list. The criteria for defining the Asianness of the writer remains the passport and the nationality, which, given the massive geographical spread, could lead to fascinating but very eclectic shortlists in the future.
The recently announced DSC Prize for South Asian literature has a much smaller focus — the restriction to the subcontinent rather than to the entire Asian continent makes it narrower, but also makes it more likely that the shortlists will feature books with common themes and interests. More controversial is the decision to define South Asian literature by content, rather than by nationality — if your book has a South Asian setting or South Asian characters, it qualifies. This will lead to some confusion; Asian authors who write about other times and places will be left out, and you could theoretically have a shortlist that features six Asian books, but not a single Asian writer.
Over time, though, both the DSC and the Man Asian could help us come to a better understanding of what Asian fiction is, as a category — if such a beast exists. It’s as complex as trying to define what makes an Indian novel Indian, and perhaps it will be as much fun.
Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills illustrates a point about the dangers of getting what’s informally known as the Bastard Child comparison wrong in the blurb. (This refers to an overworked blurb-writer/reviewer cliché: “X novel reads like a cross between William Faulkner and William Styron”; “If Bret Easton Ellis and Judith Krantz had offspring, this book would be their firstborn”, etc.) Tiger Hills, one of the most-hyped debut novels of this season, drew pre-publication comparisons to Gone With The Wind and The Thorn Birds.
I can say with some confidence that this two-generation family historical saga set in Coorg starring an impossibly beautiful, wilful heroine, an impossibly romantic tiger hunter and an impossibly annoying faithful husband with not one but two deep, dark secrets, resembles neither Margaret Mitchell’s deathless bestseller nor Colleen McCollough’s equally indestructible forbidden-love pulp epic. It is, however, the child of The Far Pavilions and House of Blue Mangoes, as midwifed by Jodi Picoult, and if that appeals to you, go ahead and buy a copy. Just don’t expect Scarlett and Rhett in the Coorg hills.