literary awards

Why we need a new, truly global, prize for world literature

The Nobel committee does not singularly rule over the world republic of letters.

Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.

Some years, we hardly know the person, so we scramble to find out something about them, looking for bits of their writing online. Other years, like 2016, it goes to a more prominent person. Some are elated, others find the choice intriguing, while still others express disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else they consider more deserving.

But it is only one prize given to a single person, and truth be told, every year there are dozens of valid contenders from around the world.

I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we – whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it – behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?

Who picks the winner anyway?

In reality, the Swedish Nobel Committee is merely a handful of jurors from a small country of less than 10 million, speaking a language that is one of the smaller ones in the world. The current committee has five full members and two associates.

They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know a thing about them or their writing. They are probably all white, and, for sure, all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women.

Nominations come from writers and academics around the world, and the committee probably has staff that helps them select and read nominees.

But, at the end of the day, given who they are, given where they are based, they will no doubt have a certain predilection for European/European-origin writers, and, over the long haul, will privilege European languages. Sometimes, they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are always the interesting choices.

I understand that the Nobel Committee set up the Literature Prize to be the first global literary prize. That was certainly gutsy of them. It helped that this was virgin territory, and perhaps because there were no other contenders, the Nobel Literature Prize would become known as the world’s premier award for literary work. Of course, it helped that the prize was based in a small, more or less neutral, European country, outside of the big-power divisions of world politics.

But did people immediately accept it as the premier award for letters? Or was it seen as an interesting new fad, with people reserving judgment until it curated a list of awardees?

I doubt people all rose to applaud when the first prize was announced in 1901 for the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme.

Yes, who?

It’s the Euro Nobel

Though it broke new ground here and there – awarding the prize to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, for example – and to some truly deserving writers, for most of its first half-century, the Nobel Prize was known more for its misses rather than for its hits. It was more notable for who it left out.

What did it mean when it awarded Boris Pasternak, who’d been published outside Soviet censorship? Or then about Pablo Neruda, who’d sympathised with Soviet communism?

It is probably after the Cold War sparks dimmed, and the Nobel broke ground reaching out to writers outside the mainstream, that many of us came to expect it as the arbiter of people of letters, only a small number were recognised. That’s vital to remember: Even in the Western tradition, more significant writers have been left out by the Nobel than recognised. And if we are to mention under-represented literatures, the Swedes must be among the unhappiest lot: Their Academy has only rewarded seven over the life of the prize.

Still, despite outliers – two Japanese, two Chinese, a few from Africa and the Caribbean – the Nobel mainly privileges Western European writers and languages. When it reaches beyond, those of us from the world beyond Europe and North America applaud. But when it doesn’t, we are unhappy.

How long has it been since the decolonisation of most of the colonised world?

How long has it been that Japan has emerged as a major economic power from its WWII defeat? Or a number of Asian countries to emerge as developed economies? Or some African nations to rise as powerful countries?

Time for an alternative

Why is it that no one outside the West, no one in the South or East, has come up with a literary prize that might be more open to recognising talent from other corners of the planet?

Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are few. The Neustadt Prize is really the only other international award, and that’s run out of the University of Oklahoma.

Both its jurors and its nominees are often quite interesting, but we don’t line up like clockwork every two years to await the Neustadt Prize like we do the Nobel.

There are a few other prizes – the Man Booker International Prize, the International Dublin – but those tend to privilege the language English or translations into English.

There are some prizes specific to other languages, such as French or Spanish, and there are also some regional prizes. In Asia, until 2008, there used to be a Magsaysay Prize in the Philippines for “journalism, literature, and creative communication arts.”

There are plenty of billionaires and millionaires from the South and East today. No doubt a few among them might even be partial to literature. Maybe. But why is it that no one has come forward to fund another international award that might be smarter than the Nobel?

In the end, I think we are all complicit in handing over the role of “world arbiter of literature” to the Nobel Committee. Let’s admit it – deep down, we all look towards Europe’s approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters. Our disappointment in the Nobel is a marker of our own insecurities, our lack of confidence.

No doubt this will change one day. Perhaps someone in a country of the South and East, not tied up in international power politics, someone with passion and integrity, will bring forth a more inclusive international prize. Not just a copy of the Nobel, but a smarter prize. Until that day, we will perk up our ears every October and either celebrate or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm. And after a new prize arrives, we will switch our glee or ire to that new prize.

This article was first published in the Dhaka Tribune.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.