A cursory glance at the 16 books featured on the longlist of the eighth edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is all you need to notice that you have already seen most of these titles celebrated on major prize lists in the past year.
Announced at the Oxford Bookstore in New Delhi on October 10, the $25,000 prize is among the most prestigious of international literary prizes, with a special focus on South Asian writing. This year, 88 eligible entries – judged by a five-member panel comprising Rudrangshu Mukherjee (chair of jury), Nandana Sen, Claire Armitstead, Tissa Jayatilaka and Firdous Azim – were funnelled down to 16 works of fiction, including four in translation, all in contention for the much-coveted literary honour.
“The novels include stunning portrayals of migration, war and the pain of displacement, poignant love stories, the exploration of new found relationships and identities, and vivification of the personal struggles, hopes and aspirations that symbolise the urgent and divisive realities of contemporary South Asian life” the judges said of the longlist.
With the newly-founded JCB Prize for Literature also attracting literary attention, boasting the badge of India’s richest literary prize (at Rs 25 lakh), should readers, editors, and publishers begin to hold the older, more established prizes to higher standards? How can the DSC Prize, won last year by Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage, continue to be relevant in a literary landscape that is proliferating with prizes?
While a majority (forty-five) of the submitted novels were written by women, the longlist spotlights only six of them (alongside three women translators). Similarly, whereas 30% of the eligible books were by first-time authors, only two debuts have made the cut (Prayaag Akbar’s Leila and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People).
Mostly, then, the 16 consist of big-ticket names – authors who have been shortlisted and longlisted for, or won, Indian as well as international literary prizes in this prize year. Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness) was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker. Kamila Shamsie won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction for Home Fire, and was also on the longlist in the same Booker year as Roy and Hamid. Neel Mukherjee and Jeet Thayil, on the longlist for A State of Freedom and The Book of Chocolate Saints, respectively, are among others who have been nominated for the Booker in the past. Alongside these, Manu Joseph’sMiss Laila Armed and Dangerous and Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness are also in the running for the DSC this year.
Closer to home, three books have appeared on both JCB and DSC Prize longlists this year: Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived; Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints; and Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, translated by N Kalyan Raman. Roy and Thayil are also previous recipients of the DSC Prize. Finally, Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, which bagged the 2017 Hindu Prize, is currently also on the shortlist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize (apart from the DSC longlist).
Overlaps on prize lists are not uncommon. We often find the same books circulating in the prize sphere of, say, the Man Booker, and the Folio and Goldsmiths prizes. This does, however, mean that the same, selective books gain currency in the global literary marketplace, perpetuating a select canon. What is also noteworthy is that the DSC Prize doesn’t have a fixed number of books for its longlist. In other words, it doesn’t have a “Booker dozen”.
This year’s 16 books were preceded by 13 in the previous year, and only 11 in 2016. By logic, a larger longlist would mean more room. Yet there are glaring omissions – especially since the DSC Prize’s eligibility goes beyond ethnicity or nationality (so far as the writing is “about South Asia and its people”) – such as Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize earlier this year.
While the heavy presence of established, expected names on the longlist offers less cause for discussion, the DSC Prize’s distinct eligibility rules mean that “close to a quarter of all the entries have come in from publishers outside South Asia, which highlights the growing importance of the region in the global literary landscape,” as founder Surina Narula said. SJ Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies, for example, has been published by Soho Press, USA. There is an opportunity for fiction to flow in both directions here: the global market is exposed to South Asian writers and their books, and audiences within the region have the chance to encounter writers in the diaspora, as well as others writing with a keen eye on South Asia.
The DSC also stands apart from prizes like the Man Booker, which has invited much criticism for the manner in which it is structured, whereby mainstream publishers can submit more titles for consideration, which inevitably increases their chances to be longlisted, and the cycle repeats itself. It is, therefore, also refreshing to see Zubaan Books (for Chandrakanta’s The Saga of Satisar, translated by Ranjana Kaul) and Speaking Tiger (Sujit Saraf’s Harilal and Sons) celebrated on this longlist.
The 2018 DSC Prize longlist is not only bridging gaps geographically, but also along linguistic lines – the four translations are from Assamese, Kannada, Tamil, and Hindi. This year has also seen the inaugural National Book Awards for Translated Literature in the US, and the second edition of the successful Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (to address the gender imbalance) on the international landscape.
In India, the rules of the JCB Prize entail that two of four submitted titles by a publisher must be translations. This year onwards, the Hindu Prize will also accept translations of literary fiction. It is reassuring for readers to see that the linguistic diversity of the South Asian region is being recognised and prioritised through the gatekeepers of cultural currency.
In a world with burgeoning book prizes, what’s the way forward? Maybe it’s all about making a continued and sustained effort to foreground and reward smaller publishers, lesser-known writers, and translated works.