The year seems to have started well for HarperCollins: Three of their authors were listed for the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize and Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night won the Costa First Novel Award. The Costa Book Awards are one of the significant literary prizes in the UK and recognize books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland. It has five categories: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. The winners in each category receive £5,000 (around Rs 3.6 lakh). Desai, along with the winners in the other four categories, is now a contestant for the £30,000 award of the Costa Book of the Year 2010, which will be announced soon.
Witness the Night is a gripping novel that highlights what I have noted earlier in this column: an increasing and fruitful tendency among newer “Indian English” writers to resort to elements adapted from genre fiction. Based around a mass murder in a sprawling house in Punjab, it introduces Simran, a whisky-swigging, chain-smoking social worker from Delhi, as a feisty female “detective”.
Using the murder mystery, the novel delves into aspects of tradition and change, class and gender. While sometimes the narrative slows down, it never loses significance. This is a novel worth reading.
The latest lists will be out by the time this column appears in print, and I am afraid they will confirm a trend: The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize should now be called the Postcolonialist Writers Prize. And this is not just a positive change.
In Beginning Postcolonialism, one of the best introductions to the field, John McLeod does an excellent job of explaining the movement from “commonwealth criticism”, with its “universalist” criteria, to postcolonialism, with its deeper political awareness. He also, fairly and correctly to my mind, points out that early “commonwealth critics” served the useful purpose of promoting literature from the ex-colonies, even though it was in “universalist” terms. They focused not on what was distinctive about such literature, but what it shared with “standard” British or American literature.
Perhaps one can say more in the defence of these early Commonwealth critics. One can argue that their “universalist” criteria were demanded by the fact that the writers they were championing were mostly based in or came from “other” places: India, the Caribbean, Nigeria. The very fact of this difference forced them to adopt universalist criteria in order to “sell” these writers to British and American readers.
Nobel laureate: Seamus Heaney. Jack Mikrut/AFP
With the rise of postcolonialism all this changed—which was partly for the better. But, again, if one looks at current shelves of visible postcolonial literature, what one finds is the dominance of writers who have been educated, at least from school onwards, in the UK, US or highly-Europeanized spaces such as Canada and Australia. Can’t one argue that the postcolonial valourization of difference is possible because many of these writers actually share the same cultural and educational spaces as their British and American readers?
I feel that the Commonwealth Prize reflects this trend: Writers who grow up in highly Europeanized spaces stand a better chance. Writers born or educated in the UK, Canada and Australia have an advantage over those (largely) educated in the Caribbean and India. The term “Commonwealth”, with its faulty geopolitical demarcation, has been replaced by a discourse of postcolonialism. This allows some radical space, at least vis-à-vis prizes such as the Booker, but it is not always a change for the better.
Surviving the Nobel
Few authors manage to do so, but there is no doubt that Seamus Heaney has survived the Nobel. His excellent new collection Human Chain shows no diminution of the powers of this Irish Nobel laureate.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at email@example.com