DSC South Asian Literary Prize -- Sharing Space

There is a thirst for stories that portray "foreign" culture in the darkest light imaginable.
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I heard about being included on the long list for this prize via a google alert that also had one alerting me to the fact that someone was flogging a copy of my novel on eBay. I guess technology has a way of keeping us all humble. In going through the list, I was not surprised to find many of the books were written by women and/or related to themes that are usually excluded when the American powers that be decide to compile lists -- of top hundreds, of best of, etc. (For a great overview on all that, read Alyss Dixson's piece in the Atlantic, "On Invisibility, Gender & Publishing.") Discernment and good sense has certainly been in evidence within the South Asian literary community before: the South Asian Literary & Theater Arts Festival last year managed to divide its honorees equally among the genders in the same week that the Publisher's Weekly put out its now infamous list of 100 best books, only 29 of which happened to be written by women.

The DSC prize, as announced in the Hindustan Times, is a brand new one in the literary field. It was initiated in the belief that there was a need for a prize of substantial heft to allow the recognition of writing about South Asia that reflects not so much an eye on a Western reader as it does the particular complexities of the sub continent. It is a laudable idea whose time has come, and whose execution may, perhaps, create the space that is necessary for more of us to write the books we wish to write rather than those for which we are usually celebrated.

We are sometimes asked to be a spokesperson for an entire culture, and all of us writers --published or not -- have, surely, spoken as translators of our native cultures and done it with a certain aplomb. What, however, are our responsibilities when we write as the spokesperson for a particular culture? At the AWP conference Last year, I had occasion to make the following observations during a panel on writing South Asia. I asked the audience to consider a Hutu Rwandan American writing a short story, in first person, about how his sister was gang-raped by seven Tutsis in a ditch on the banks of a river. What, I asked, do you think the response might be? I asked them to consider a short story about a Hutu Rwandan American having a change of heart about what she thought about his Tutsi compatriot? Would it be published?

The odds are, it is that first story that will be chosen, not the second. Because there is a thirst for hearing not only what is assumed is fact -- in the vital absence of information -- but what portrays a "foreign" culture in the darkest light imaginable. The question then becomes not why is it "they" will only publish a certain kind of story, but why it is that "we" are so willing to write the stories expected of us rather than those we wish to relate?

Of course, sometimes, there is no recourse to be had in writing the stories we wish to tell. Long-held biases can kill the noblest effort, a predicament I wrote of in a previous Huffington Post Books piece entitled "The 'Ethnic' Book":

Why is it that when a book is written by a South Asian author and is set in a South Asian country, the reading public expects a dysfunctional stew of communal warfare, misogyny, and abject poverty? Why is it that even when the book is not a last-word on an entire culture but, like any 'American' fiction, a story about a particular family, set of circumstances and time period, it is taken to be a definitive statement on the entire culture? I get an email a day from someone who loves my book, which I appreciate -- keep them coming! -- but whose missive ends too often with some variation of 'Thank you for highlighting the sad status of women in Sri Lanka. I'm so glad I live in the United States where I take so much for granted.' No, no, no. This is not a book about the status of women in Sri Lanka. This is a book -- as Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies was a book, and Toni Morrison's Sula was a book, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible was a book -- about a particular cast of characters, their psychological hinges, their rectitude and debasements. It is about how they moved - as the Mirabel sisters moved, and Sula and Nel moved, and Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth Price moved -- through a set of circumstances that belonged to them, and to them alone, within a larger story that also moves with them, and which must include these kinds of conversations.

As we, writers, continue to reach for that other, more personal and more truthful fiction, I also see the DSC long list as a cornerstone of that effort, a way to understand not simply what we owe to our readers, wherever they may reside, but what we owe to ourselves, as writers holding only a single skein of the threads that make up a continent, in our minds. Salonica, one of the literary blog sites that focusses on world literature, quotes Nilanjana S. Roy, Chairperson of the Jury pointing out its relevance:

experience as a member of the jury this year has convinced me that the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature works well for writers, but that it will ultimately function as an essential reading list for anyone who has an interest in Asian culture, politics, history and fiction. We began our reading as members of the jury with an unspoken question in our minds: is there such a thing as "Asian writing", or "the Asian novel?" The answers to that question are fascinating, for readers and writers alike.

With a view to making it a little easier to access these stories, here is the complete list with the books linked to reviews that I felt understood both the content of each story as well as the intention of the author.

DSC long-list:

The shortlist will be announced at the DSC South Asian Literature Festival to be held in October in London, and the winner will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, 2011. During a post-reading Q&A session at Fall for the Book this week, a student asked me what was different about being a published author. The difference, as I see it, is not the thrill that comes from recognition accorded to ones own book, but the recognition that arises within an author of the vast talent that lies on all sides of her among her peers, and the scope and depth of the cultures that brought them into being. Let us seize the opportunity, as writers, to add fifteen new books about South Asia to our reading lists.

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