How the Jhalak Prize is levelling the literary playing field

On the evening of October 14, 2019, the hearts of people of colour across the UK sank upon receiving a push notification from their news provider of choice. The headlines varied from publication to publication, but the sentiment was clear: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo were announced shared winners of the Booker Prize 2019. 

Since the award’s inception in 1969, Evaristo is the only black woman to win the iconic prize worth £50,000 for her exquisite novel Girl, Woman, Other. This could have been a powerful historic moment for the literary sphere and yet judges chose to go break protocol and split the prize with Atwood, who previously won the award in 2000 for her novel The Blind Assassin

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this sent a very hopeless message to writers of colour, making it known that their contributions are not entirely valued by traditional establishments. Two individuals working tirelessly to create a space where these writers can be truly recognised for their contributions are writers Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla, co-founders of the Jhalak Prize

The literary prize, which is in its fourth year, assembles a panel of voluntary peers to select a Book of the Year by a British BAME writer and award them a £1000 prize, which is funded by an anonymous donor. The three previous winners have been Jacob Ross for The Bone Readers, Reni Eddo-Lodge for Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and Guy GunaratneIn for Our Mad and Furious City

“We accept across the genres, we accept self-published [work], there is no commitment,” Singh tells me. “There is no fee for a book to be submitted. There is no expense to the writer or the publisher. Anyone – writers, publishers, agents – can submit a book they feel is eligible” she adds.

This is one of many attributes that makes the Jhalak Prize a key facilitator of real change. Publishing, like many other creative industries, remains fundamentally inaccessible to those who are not privileged or well connected, but a prize that is free to enter will open doors for many writers of colour, especially self-published writers without the resources of a publisher.

“Britain publishes over 20 books per hour. It roughly publishes [over] 150,000 books per year. I think if you can get to a thousand books across all possible genres […] that are by writers of colour, you’re being super optimistic.” 

Singh had considered establishing a prize ‘for a while’ and was further encouraged by the shocking findings of the Writing the Future report 2015. The report, commissioned by Spread the Word, surveyed and interviewed 200 authors and 100 publishing professionals, and found that large majorities of the industry felt that it was ‘not diverse at all’. 

It found that only 47% of BAME writers had a literary agent for their debut, compared to 64% of white novelists, and when their career was established, 53% of BAME authors remained agentless compared to 37% of white writers. 

The lack of diversity extended behind the scenes too, with a mere 8% of publishing employees who identified themselves as having a BAME background. 

This discrepancy becomes even more palpable when Singh tells me: “Every year we have judges who are on the panel and, because there are so few of us being published, often they have their own books that are in the running, which means that choosing to be a judge means you are disqualifying yourself for the prize”.

The implications of this statement are twofold: on one hand, it’s an eye-opening insight into how minute the community of British BAME writers is, but on the other hand, it highlights the selflessness of that very community. 

“I think that says something really wonderful about our community and about the people who agree to be judges because that’s the kind of generosity, and collegiality, and solidarity that you see in action” explains Singh. 

Singh articulates this sense of community well. As a group that has faced multi-faceted exclusion from creative industries, there is a shared goal amongst the few that have succeeded to hold the ladder up for other writers of colour; representation becomes more important than individual self-promotion.

“I think everything that makes us visible, that gets more books out there, with names like ours, faces like ours, stories like ours help […] younger writers, and young people, people who might just be thinking about writing – it helps them imagine they can do it”.

In the 2015 report, Editor Danuta Kean noted that: “Nowhere is this more obvious than in the rise of the unpaid internship as a primary route into the business – a practice that immediately discriminates against those without the economic power to support living and working in London unwaged”. 

With the institutional challenges that people of colour disproportionately face, it becomes hard for the community to justify careers that require so much unpaid work if they do not have the economic support in place to make this a reality. 

As such there are so few BAME individuals working at the editorial level, vouching for our stories, that writers of colour feel that the ‘best chance of publication’ is ‘to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities’ Kean explains. 

Singh cites publishing companies such as Knights of and Dialogue Books as pioneers of the changes the industry needs to be truly representative of Britain’s diverse population. But the writer is calling on BAME communities to also do their bit and ‘buy books’ for your family, friends, and children. 

“And don’t give them David Walliams bloody well again! There are loads of other writers who are doing amazing work. The conscious way of buying books is where we’re going to see the changes”. 

So what makes a Jhalak Prize winner when submissions come from many genres and forms? Singh believes that, whilst spoilt for choice, judges are always guided to unanimous decisions: ‘Catherine Johnson, who was one of the inaugural year judges, said ‘we know when we see a good book because it stands out in its category’.

“There will be something that as writers we can see the craft, we can see the lightness, we can see the joy that’s in a book, regardless of the material […] I think it just comes from this place of ‘we love these books’. 

Despite the challenges of comparing such vastly differing literary works, the Jhalak Prize longlist becomes a ‘touchstone of quality’ that truly has something for everyone in Britain to enjoy. Singh recognises that this is something special: 

“Not very many prizes will say ‘look, here’s a book that your grandmother would love, and here’s a book that you will love, and here’s a book that your teen would love and you can get them all on the same longlist’ and I think that really matters.”

The Jhalak Prize 2020 shortlist was announced today and is as follows: 

1. The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta (Hodder Children’s) 

2. Remembered, Yvonne Battle-Felton (Dialogue)

3. Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze/Orion) 

4. Fleche, Mary Jean Chan (Faber) 

5. Suncatcher, Romesh Gunesekera (Bloomsbury) 

6. Afropean: Notes From Black Europe, Johny Pitts (Allen Lane). 

The 2020 winner will be announced on May 26.

2 Thoughts

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