I’ve almost finished reading the longlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2011, as part of the SMALP project some of us are running. It’s been an interesting reading list, to say the least, and the more I read, the more questions I have.
The Man Asian Literary Award is awarded each year to “the best novel by an Asian writer, either written in English or translated into English,” and is loosely based upon the Man Booker Prize, which is awarded to the best novel published in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) in the previous year. This is enough of a beast in itself – the modern English literary tradition now encompasses a wide variety of countries, and I think we can probably all agree that Nigeria and New Zealand have little in common outside of their shared modern linguistic heritage. But for the purposes of awarding a literary prize, that’s enough.
“Asia” as a concept is, at best, a simply geographic term used to describe an ever changing collection of nation-states that happen to be in the same part of the world. At worst, and no doubt Edward Said would agree with me here, it is the ultimate signifier of the Other for the Western tradition – a land of mysterious women, of inscrutable men, and of bizarre rituals. There is, of course, no one thing that defines what it means to be “Asian” – indeed, depending on who you ask, the very image of “Asia” will be completely different. British people, for example, tend to refer to people from the subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. – as Asian, while those of us in Australia conjure up a far more Chinese and Japanese image.
How, then, can one judge the best “Asian” novel of the past year? Most countries in the Asian region speak unique languages. If we’re taking Asia to include the Middle East, there’s certainly no shared cultural history in the region; there is no way to easily reconcile the traditions of, say Iran and Japan, or South Korea and Bangladesh. Depending on whether or not you include Turkey as a part of Europe (there’s a good question, why aren’t Turks eligible for this Prize?), you can look broadly at the history of Europe in parallel with the history of the Church, and understand the shared traditions of the entire landmass. That is, of course, slightly reductionist, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s go with it.What criteria can possibly be used to try and select 12 – let alone one – great novel from a part of the world which can barely even be defined?
Do we look to stories of what it means to be Asian, stories of the “Asian” experience? Murakami may be the most well-known name on this year’s list, but as Rebecca Suter argues, he is hardly the most representative figure of the Japanese literary tradition, let alone the Asian literary tradition. Here is a man who lives in one of the most developed countries in the world, a country that bares the full brunt of the connected, globalised world in which we live. Murakami translates a lot of English literature into Japanese, and he freely admits that his own influences tend towards the great American writers as opposed to people like Yukio Mishima. Does his experience make him more or less “Asian”? Should we be looking instead to, say, Anam’s The Good Muslim, which deals with a fully internalised national struggle for both identity and power, free from outside influences? Is the latter a more “Asian” novel by virtue of the fact that there are fewer connections to the Western world?
Does this mean, then, that novels such as Tarun J Tejpal’s The Valley of Masks should be discounted, because its tendency towards imagined dystopian religious cults? Certainly Tejpal’s world-view and cultural background has been informed by his being raised in India, but his tale is far more universal, and cuts to the core of what it means to have unquestioning faith. Hardly a uniquely “Asian” concept, is it?
Or should we simply look to authors who, by virtue of simply being born in a particular place, have had “Asian” citizenship bestowed upon them, have become eligible for this award? Tahmima Anam was born in Shaka, but now lives in London. Does that make her less “Asian” than the others on the list? In today’s globalised world, citizenship is such an arbitrary identifier anyway, should it also be used to judge eligibility for a literary award? Had Kazuo Ishiguro written a novel this year, why should he not be considered, simply because he now holds British citizenship? Do his experiences as a Japanese-Englishman count for something less? Why not someone like Nam Le, whose stories about being Vietnamese in Australia cut right to the heart of what it means to be “Asian” in the 21st century? Heck, if we’re going to go the whole way, why not have a novel like The Slap in for consideration, which also deals with Asian identity in a multicultural socety? Kavita Bhanot talks about why these kinds of stories – the stories of the diaspora – are important in this rather fascinating article here.
Then, of course, we have my favourite “genre” of writing – stories that show us how different cultures and societies get along with one another in a small space. Chang-rae Lee, a judge on this year’s panel, also seems interested in situations like this (clearly, he is an intelligent man) – he says he is “fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance” (this comes from Fay’s post here, and the original quote is from here.) We have to look no further than Amitav Ghosh’s beautifully drawn window into the ports of Canton and Hong Kong in the 1830s in his novel River of Smoke, for an Asia in which one can hear a multiplicity of voices from an endless number of cultures and races. Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, set in Guyana – not even close to Asia – explores the Indian diaspora in a multicultural context. In many ways, I’m disappointed there aren’t more diaspora novels on the list, but the current citizenship restrictions on entry mean it is unlikely this will change any time soon.
There is, on top of all of these confusing identity questions, the fact that, for this Prize, you don’t even have to have written your novel at the same time as everyone else, removing another levelling factor. Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, The Lake, was first published in 2005, a full four years before Murakami’s 1Q84 – though they share some similar themes. Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village was also first published in 2005. In the grand scheme of things, six years is not a long time, but it’s enough. These novels aren’t even reacting to the same world around them.
I hope this does not sound like a diatribe against the Prize – that is not at all my intention. I certainly do not envy the actual judges of the Prize, because it is clear this a complicated and demanding process. But there are important questions at stake here, which have ramifications not just for the small, slightly inbred world of literature, but for the wider community. As we head into the “Asian century,” whatever the hell that might mean, the way this region of the world is perceived by the rest of us is of paramount importance. I certainly cannot provide answers to any of the questions I’ve put forth here. If five years of study for a Bachelor of Asian Studies has taught me nothing else (thanks, ANU), it is that there are no answers to big questions like this. The only question I can answer is the one I asked in the title of this post: why?
My answer is this: why not? Any award that encourages people to pick up something they never have before, something that might be a little bit different to what they might be used to, something that encourages and stimulates their mind – any award that can make me write a 1500 word essay during my summer holidays can only be a good thing. And it’s not just good for readers – hopefully it will encourage other “Asian” writers, hopefully, to explore all of these questions I’ve touched upon here in their own writings, and provide a larger base from which entrants to this prize can be chosen.
And it would seem, from the evidence, that this is slowly happening. While none of the longlisted authors are from particularly obscure, remote countries, countries such as Iran, India, and Bangladesh still face real world problems, stemming arguably from a lack of literacy, and other education. Bangladesh’s literacy rate is only 55.9%; India, 74.0%; Pakistan, 58.2%. Miguel Syjuco’s win of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize prompted something of a resurgence in the Filipino publishing industry -prompting an upswing in publishers and writers being encouraged to do what they love.
I think a lot of people tend to discount the literary world, and indeed, the publishing industry, as something only for rich people, an indulgence afforded to those who don’t want to deal with the real world. But there are real world implications in reading. Encouraging people to read – kids, in particular – can only be a good thing. David Parker, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Man Asian Literary Prize talks about what he believes to be the aims of the prize here – you should check it out; it’s a really interesting interview.
If this prize generates as much interest around literacy, fiction, and literature as other prizes do, and it does so with an Asian focus – you’ve got your answer to the question I asked at the beginning. Why?
Oh, and in case anyone’s interested, here’s my ideal shortlist. I suspect it’s not even close to what will be released tonight, but there you go.
River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH
The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY
Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook
The Valley of Masks – Tarun J. TEJPAL
Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke
The Lake – YOSHIMOTO Banana