Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Absense of Asianness?

A South Asian journalist who does not wish to be named and is moonlighting from her newspaper sent me this article (unpublished in the press) and I thought it might interest you too:

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 doesn’t give the organizer’s 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 administration’s reticence about pushing themselves forward suggests they’re also aware that this issue could crucially undermine the prize’s legitimacy in many eyes.


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 The journal, like the award, is for “works as yet unpublished in English”, a clever concept that enabled its editors to include Asian authors who initially produce their work in their vernacular languages (as Chinese and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 Gordon’s new organization.


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 Gordon’s 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 year’s prize were from South Asia.

Amusingly, Vittachi’s 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.


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. I’m 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: “It’s amazing what a person can achieve if he doesn'’t mind who takes the credit.”
I 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?

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.


Anonymous said...

Let's include a fair mix of people in the committee then--there must be at least one representative for each ethnic group. ;) Will that make everyone happy??

But truthfully I think the controversy does have a certain degree of relevance, especially considering the state of 'Asian' literature compared to 'Western' literature. Put very simply--we read American and British literature much more widely than they do Asian literature. And, don't want to sound like a broken record but I think this has been said before--most Western readers, or at least, uninformed ones, would be more inclined to imagine Asians as the epitome of the Oriental (read Said's 'Orientalism'), and alternate image of Asians being just as well-versed as they are in English or lead relatively modern lives (going to work in the city, dealing with marital problems, complaining about the traffic) just doesn't sit too well with them.

All very well for people like Sayer who says "Am I not Asian" after living in HK for 12 years.
Let's try the shoe on the other foot. Do you really think that an Asian person who's been living in America or the UK for 12 years would be considered American or British?

Even if my comments above can be somewhat of a generalisation (I certainly wouldn't include people who've lived in Asia and understand the culture etc.), I think ultimately the problem is that being colonised has just created a LOT of baggage for us. And it shows.

bibliobibuli said...

Asian person who's been living in America or the UK for 12 years would be considered American or British?

that also is an interesting question. certainly they should have PR and/or citizenship which eludes one here!

i guess though that different people will have different answers to the question, and part of that will have to do with how far they themselves want to be seen as british or american or whatever.

i must say speaking for myself that i do feel accepted here. no-one in all this time has ever said to me what right do you have to write about things asian? (well just once at tash's first mph appearance when someone asked the author what right a non-asian had to review his book!)

one rep from each community is hard ... how for eg. could any group of asians even represent the whole ethnic diversity of asia for a start!

Anonymous said...

>will have to do with how far they >themselves want to be seen as >british or american or whatever.

Or a citizen of the world! ;) I think nationality is different from ethnicity, certainly, in that I can't say I'm a particular nationality when the law/government says I'm not, whereas ethnicity sometimes can't even be ascertained if you're from a mixed lineage (the best kind of person to be! Even the racists wouldn't know what to do with you... ;) ).

But I think the real issue here is, why do we obssess about race and ethnicity so much? I don't think it'll ever end until everyone's so 'mixed up' then no one can really define what we are anymore.

>well just once at tash's first >mph appearance when someone asked >the author what right a non-asian >had to review his book!)

Okay, that's just plain stupidity I think. Funny how this sounds silly and not quite the selection of judges for the Man Asian Prize. Food for thought.

Maybe mainly because books are reviewed all over the world by all sorts of different people (naturally) whereas most 'big name' prizes are run and judged by 'Westerners'. Maybe Asians just wanted a prize of their very own--there's always a lot of debate about how it's harder for Asian/African or just generally non-British/American books to win prizes (of course, Booker seems to indicate this is change, esp. with this year's longlist) because the judges can't identify with these cultures, so the purpose of the Asian prize is to level the playing ground a little. So, perhaps it's seen as a futile mission if the Asian book ends up being judged by a non-Asian anyway!

>one rep from each community is >hard ... how for eg. could any >group of asians even represent >the whole ethnic diversity of >asia for a start!

Exactly! I was just kidding. Can you imagine, we'd have maybe 130 judges, hahaha.. one for each book! Hey, not a bad idea right? hehehee....

bibliobibuli said...

Maybe Asians just wanted a prize of their very own--there's always a lot of debate about how it's harder for Asian/African or just generally non-British/American books to win prizes (of course, Booker seems to indicate this is change, esp. with this year's longlist) because the judges can't identify with these cultures, so the purpose of the Asian prize is to level the playing ground a little.

yes, for sure. and this is what is behind the unhappiness of nury and others. it isn't the thought that the judges are unable to do a really good job ... it's about the identity of the prize. and i think that's a completely justifiable grouse.

Amir Muhammad said...

I'm more curious as to why the journalist didn't want to reveal her name. Not allowed to moonlight, or does she know one of the participants in this controversy too well? Inquiring minds wanna know!

For the record, I think Anthony Burgess wrote a far better 'Malayan' novel than did, say, Tash Aw.

bibliobibuli said...

i am very curious too, amir. i know her name but couldn't ask her anything further as her email was "no reply".

Read@Peace said...

Got the email too and we all know her name, don't we? Wish moonlighting journos had a little more guts. Nothing irks me more than, here's my piece, blah, blah, blah - don't quote me can?

As far as the prize is concerned, it's time to put the politics behind us and get on with what needs to be celebrated - Asian writing. If wishes were horses....

Anonymous said...

Busy with exams and in the midst of revision but felt compelled to share these words of Salman Rushdie from his essay, 'Imaginary Homelands':

'[A] book is not justified by its author's worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside.'

And further:

'[We] are not willing to be excluded from any part of our heritage; which includes both a Bradford-born Indian kid's right to be treated as a full member of British society, and also the right of any member of this post-diaspora comunity to draw on its roots for its art, just as all the world's community of displaced writers has always done.'

bibliobibuli said...

those are wonderful quotes and so true. very many thanks for taking the time out for revision to post them. good luck with everything!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sharon. 'Imaginary Homelands' is one of the essays I'm revising for my exam and I'd recommend everyone to read it. I suppose I was trying to draw a parallel there with choosing judges for an Asian prize. Would love to discuss more but will only be liberated tomorrow afternoon!

bibliobibuli said...

haven't read "imaginary homelands" and now know i must. when everything is done we must meet up and have a proper literary argue. i think sometimes i feel very lonely because i want to argue and argue stuff and there's no-one around to bounce thoughts off.

must stop thinking and blogging for a while to get some work done and some necessary housework!