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Between a Wok and a Hard Place


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Until the longlist for the was announced last week, the behind-the-scenes gossip had overshadowed the real purpose of the prize""to discover new, unpublished
Gossip is, of course, irresistible, and as the longlist announcement was made, the Asia Sentinel published another update to the controversies that have dogged the prize. According to their reporter, local Hong Kong author Nury Vittachi, who was "spectacularly ousted from the organizing team of the which he helped found", is back on the governing board.
Peter Gordon, chairman of the Man Asian Literary Prize, has resigned from the festival's governing board. As the Sentinel commented, the boardroom brawl was "probably packed with more drama to come out of Hong Kong in recent history". Vittachi has been circumspect; on his blog, Mister Jam, he merely writes: "When I proposed this prize...I focused on the lack of infrastructure for literature in Asia. The festivals, the literary journals, and now the prize""these all provide stepping stones, which are small but important."
Reading the longlist, though, I was far more impressed by the Man Asian's commitment to unsung writers than by any of the backroom squabbles. The longlist features 23 authors, of whom the best-known is probably Xiaolu Guo, author of the Orange-shortlisted A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Among the Indian authors""there are 11 on the list""NS Madhavan is a well-known Malayalam writer, Laxmi Narayan Misra has published several books and Kankana Basu, in for Cappucino Dusk, is also the author of Vinegar Sunday.
But most of the authors on the Man Asian longlist are relatively unknown. Anuradha Vijayakrishnan (Seeing the Girl) has David Godwin as her literary agent, but far more typical of the new authors on the list is Sanjay Bahadur, whose first novel is about a mining disaster recalled by an ageing coal miner, or Tulsi Badrinath, author of The Living God. (This profusion of gods caused mild confusion""Laxmi Narayan Misra's work is called The Little God.)
Some of the other Asian writers are already almost famous, like Hitomi Kanehara, the precocious 24-year-old high school dropout who is one of the youngest Japanese writers to have won the Akutagawa Prize. Jiang Rong, who took 30 years to write Wolf Totem, is a bestselling author in China""though he was relatively unknown elsewhere until he got the longlist nod. Along with NS Madhavan (Litanies of Dutch Battery) and Xiaolu Guo, Jiang Rong and Kanehara are seen as frontrunners for the prize. But Taiwanese writer Egoyan Zheng (Fleeting Light) is less well-known, and Pakistani writer Shahbano Bilgrami is known only to a small circle of writers.
In its first year, then, the has accomplished two things. It has introduced us to our neighbours. I'll be looking out for the intriguing Wolf Totem, and looking with renewed interest at the works of writers from the subcontinent on the longlist. The prize has also avoided the clash-of-the-Titans effect that so often turns the Booker into a long, boring slugfest between six highly regarded and utterly tedious writers.
The Man Asian's approach has been to turn its prize committee into glamorous slushpile editors""excellent news for publishing houses across Asia. In order to come up with their longlist of 23 names, the judges had to wade through over 243 submissions. The rules were simple: the work had to be "unpublished" and if it had already found a publisher, then the publication date would have to be no earlier than November 1, 2007. This did not exclude raw manuscripts, and I'm assuming that a fair number of previously rejected manuscripts found their way to the Man Asian list.
From the perspective of a judge, instead of reading works that arrive with at least the endorsement of an editor, you're reading raw, unpublishable works alongside the odd gem. In the long run, this could become a very serious challenge for the Prize. The books on the shortlist have to be excellent reads not just for the judges, but for the reader.
Every literary prize faces a classic Catch-22""you want the established "names", the heavyweights, on your list simply because they write well, but if there are too many of them, they crowd out the young talent you're hoping to encourage. It could take a while for the to work out the right balance, but at this point, they've done a reasonable job of ushering in a list of new authors and new voices.
We'll only know just how good that job is when the final shortlist comes out. In the end, any prize has to be a good a reading guide, spotlighting the best, the most innovative, the most satisfying writing available. The real challenge for the prize will be to establish itself as the Asian Booker, not the B-List Booker.

The author is chief editor, EastWest and Westland Books; the views expressed here are personal

First Published: Tue, July 31 2007. 00:00 IST