Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla was declared the winner of the 2023 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature on February 27. There were three members on the jury panel that judged him the winner – Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste; Iranian-American writer and journalist Roya Hakakian; and the third member, the one Indian among them, Amit Chaudhuri.
In a conversation with author-screenwriter-lyricist Dushyant, Chaudhuri spoke about the importance of the award and judging Vinod Kumar Shukla the winner. Excerpts from the conversation:
You have been on other international prize juries before – the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Man Booker International Prize (when it was a lifetime achievement award), the IMPAC prize, the Windham-Campbell Award. This time, how do you feel about being the only Indian on the jury to award Vinod Kumar Shukla?
You want to bring everything you know and believe in to the process – not just the fact that you’re an Indian. From experience, I also have little expectation that my nominee or my first choice is going to win. This occasion was an exception.
Do you have any interesting incidents from the selection process that you would like to tell us?
I’d only say that the other two judges, Maaza Mengiste and Roya Hakakian, were very supportive and open. They read Shukla after I had introduced his work to them with great regard and sensitivity. The decision we took wouldn’t have been possible without their discernment and generosity. They, in turn, introduced me to some excellent writers, like the French-Lebanese poet Venus Khoury-Ghata, whom I hadn’t read before. Khoury-Ghata, especially, was a discovery for me. There was also a list of very distinguished writers that PEN had given us.
What are your favourite books by Vinod Kumar Shukla and why?
I have mainly read his fiction, essays, and poetry in translation – Satti Khanna’s, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s and Sara Rai’s luminous versions, which have done so much to surprise and delight and catch the attention of the Anglophone reader in India.
Do you prefer Vinod Kumar Shukla as a poet or a fiction writer?
All his writing is a compelling combination of strangeness, acute observation, love of life, unexpected thinking, and an air of normality that adds to the strangeness. I encounter these qualities in much of his work irrespective of genre, and I feel deeply drawn to them. And, of course, his prose is worthy of study – the way he manages to hold idiosyncrasy and freshness in balance from sentence to sentence.
Why was it especially important to honour Shukla with the 2023 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature?
It’s important to recognise writers of courage – the courage to pursue a vision without worrying about fitting in. Nowadays, we think writers represent a community or nationality, forgetting writers are by definition misfits. It’s liberating to embrace the misfit, or those who have had the courage to remind us of the value of not adhering to categories. We also need to remind both the world and ourselves of the multifariousness of literary modernity – that it is untrue that literature happens in the West and the non-West is where politics happens. No, literature happens everywhere. We all have a lot to learn from Shukla.
Do you agree that global acceptance of literature from Indian languages is increasing?
Those of us in India need to accept our own literatures first.
Who are some of your other favorite Hindi authors?
Premchand and Nirmal Verma. Premchand’s humour and his keen sense of oddity, Verma’s European proclivities and his sense of the strange – all these are to be found in Shukla too (although, of course, he’s never been to Europe).
This is the second consecutive international recognition for Hindi since Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize in 2022. How do you perceive this?
This is not just about Hindi. Shukla is the tip of the iceberg of literary experiment – he emerges from traditions in various languages in our country that contain an extraordinarily sophisticated vision. This award is meant to acknowledge this fact – to remind everyone, whether they’re located in the West or in India, of the resistant but invigorating nature of literary practice and of the imagination across the world for more than a century now. To speak of this in terms of international recognition and regional and national pride risks missing the full impact of this cultural achievement.