COLONIALISM FEAR OVERSHADOWS ASIAN PRIZEI know that this is ground this blog has covered before, but the discussion is certainly a relevant one for us, as this is an award Malaysian authors (including those writing in languages other than English) are already aiming for. You have a vested interest in how this award is judged, so what do you guys think?
Asians submit, but Western expats stand in judgment
November 6, 2007
THE NAME of the Asian author who will receive the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize will be finally revealed on Saturday, November 10th. But will the names of the people giving out the prize also become more apparent?
The press release doesnt give the organizers names. Communications tend to use the term Administrative Committee. Even the front pages of their website prefer to use that anonymous phrase, with the actual names tucked away on deeper link. Why are administrators so shy about revealing who they are?
The prize is for authors from most countries in Asia, but the administrative team consists entirely of a small group of Western expatriates living in Hong Kong: none are Asian. The organization also includes a three-person judging team: two from North America and one from Australia. Although one is Chinese-Canadian, not one of the judges lives or works in Asia.
The missing Asian roots at the top of the organization has been noticed by critics, and the administrations reticence about pushing themselves forward suggests theyre also aware that this issue could crucially undermine the prizes legitimacy in many eyes.
ABSENSE OF ASIAN-NESS
The absence of Asian-ness is curious given that the prize grew out of a very Asian journal called the Asia Literary Review, started in 1999 by Hong Kong-based Sri Lankan author Nury Vittachi and Indonesian-Chinese novelist Xu Xi. The journal, like the award, is for works as yet unpublished in English, a clever concept that enabled its editors to include Asian authors who initially produce their work in their vernacular languages (as Chinese and Indonesian authors do) and those who work in English (as many South Asian authors do).
The new prize was born in January last year. Vittachi made a presentation to the board of director of Man Group plc, sponsors of the Man Booker Prize, showing how this principle could be used as the foundation of an award. He received a green light on the spot.
But in the weeks that followed, Vittachi changed the way his book distributor. His former distributor Peter Gordon, who was handling the paperwork for the prize, suddenly became chairman of a separate prize organization and banned the author from any involvement. The shocked Vittachi cried foul, but it was too late. Resources from Man Group plc for the prize went to Gordons new organization.
HOST OF ISSUES
Since then, there has been a host of issues debated in a row which has convulsed the Asian literary scene, according to news wire services. In news reports and Internet chat-rooms, it has been suggested the new administration hijacked the prize.
There was more upset when Malaysia and Mongolia were initially omitted from the list of Asian countries from which Gordons administration said entries would be accepted. Another issue is that from the point of view of authors, the prize aimed to create publicity and blaze new networks for Asian authors, but the new administration appears weak on those fronts.
But the choice of expatriate administrators and judges remains the main sticking point. Many South Asian readers and writers found it particularly galling that the South Asian initiator of the prize was dropped, since that region has became legendary for its talent in English literature. Colonialism is so yesterday, a commentator said on a literary website managed by Indians. As if to prove the point, almost two-thirds of the entries for this years prize were from South Asia.
Amusingly, Vittachis supporters have set up a website, , to provide more interactivity than exists on the official site. The independent site designed to felicitate the awarded certainly has a more Asian feel to it.
QUALITY THE CONCERN
Prize spokeswoman Rosemary Sayer, an Australian living in Hong Kong, told the press earlier this year that she saw no problems with the judges being from outside Asia, arguing that quality was the main concern. Why should Asian people judge Asian writers? she told an interviewer from Radio Television Hong Kong. Concerns about the propriety of Westerners judging the prize were distasteful, she said. I've lived here for nearly 12 years. Im a permanent resident. Am I not Asian? The interviewer chose not to respond to that question. More recently, Ms Sayer has declined to answer further questions about the prize.
Meanwhile, Vittachi insists he is not bitter about what happened, although his voice occasionally becomes strident, implying that the opposite is true. He repeats the names of the shortlisted candidates like a mantra Nu Nu Yi Inwa, Reeti Gadekar, Jiang Rong, Jose Dalisay Jr and his old colleague Xu Xi and says the focus of attention should be on them, not the administrative problems (although he has called for Asians to take top spots in the administration and judging next year).
My joy at seeing my dream come true for these fellow writers far outweighs my disappointment at being banned from the party, he said, adding with a somewhat tired smile: Its amazing what a person can achieve if he doesn't mind who takes the credit.
Personally, I do think Nury was quite right to highlight the issue, it clearly is ridiculous that a prize for Asians isn't judged by Asians, right? (Nury was also treated incredibly shabbily.)
But I also think Rosemary Sayer has a point ... c'mon how long do you actually have had to have lived in a place before you are accepted as being part of the same community?
Would the long-term lit loving mat sallehs such as meself and Robert Raymer be any less valid judges of a prize or editors for an anthology for not having been born here or having sort of pinky-white skin? How would we have to prove our Asianness credentials? (By eating samabal belachan or durian?)
Would we then begin to say that some Malaysians weren't terribly Asian anyway because they were educated in the west, or had lived much of their lives there, or had grown up reading Enid Blyton?
Asian is such a bloody wide term anyway! Does someone from Pakistan, say, have a deeper insight into the fiction of China than a reader from Australia, Canada or Britain?
Face it, we live in a mixed-up muddled-up world where many of us belong culturally in more than one spot on planet earth.
Good literature should be judged as good literature by any judge from anywhere.