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How Literary Awards Ensure That Stories Are Only Told By The Powerful

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It’s that time of the year again.

We are officially in the thick of the season of Literary Awards, with the recent announcement of the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, the JCB Prize for Literature longlist, and the Booker Prize 2021 shortlist.

 

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These major literary awards were meaningful distinctions to me growing up, given to what I thought were “exceptional” works. However, for myself and many others, the significance of such literary prizes has evolved over time. These accolades, if nothing else, contribute to the discovery of new authors. We select books that we would not have considered otherwise. This prestige label encourages us to read more actively since it provides pivotal motivation.

But, are these awards true to their nature?

For the longest time, these prizes were solely given to men, and women were rarely nominated. Individuals of colour and other marginalized populations have endured a great lot to make their imprint in these awards. Their challenges are indicative of the fight for marginalised voices to occupy the mainstream.

As a reader and an ardent lover of fiction, I’ve never had the chance to observe and read the narratives of marginalized people.

Stories have the power to do what systems neglect to: give voice to the truth of everyone alike. It’s puzzling that a creative domain like storytelling is dominated by the powerful.

It wasn’t until I decided to extend my horizons and explore tales outside of the mainstream that I discovered how unfair and prejudiced these awards have been.

The author reading books.

A Closer Look At Indian Literary Prizes

Perhaps the stories (real and imagined) that each of us carry within ourselves is what make us alive. However, the testimonies we hear are those of the affluent. Empathy is a sentiment that develops via a comprehensive awareness of realities that one would not otherwise encounter. The absence of representation of disadvantaged populations in these renowned awards becomes a concern here.

Because of the predominance of patriarchal power mechanisms, literary outputs by women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ community, and DBA (Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi) authors have not gotten the recognition it deserves. This knowledge is not a surprising one. Literary awards are dominated by male intellectuals, which is nescient in character.

The National Academy of Letters – Sahitya Akademi, which is part of the Union Ministry of Culture, is one of the most distinguished accolades awarded to authors of Indian descent, and it has been in operation since 1955. Yet, until recently, women authors were given little to no regard, and only a few writers from the DBA community earned a name for themselves. I grew up reading classics and novels written by long-dead men, and it is only now that I am discovering overlooked female voices whose stories are not only relatable but also provide a more sympathetic perspective.

These stories written by men have this impossible-to-miss male gaze; a gaze that is reductive and appropriating of the challenges and lived experiences of the marginalized.

According to a report published by Economic and Political Weekly, as of 2016, just 8.1% of the 1,129 national Sahitya Akademi awards were granted to women.

Photo provided by the author.

The Ongoing Struggle For Caste Representation

Caste is a horrific reality that is glued to India’s past and present and is representative of where we stand as a society. Since the olden days, Dalit authors’ literature has gone unappreciated or even forgotten. Sahitya Akademi, which has the capacity to bring it to light, has traditionally never given it the attention it deserves.

The Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (BDSA) began pressing the Centre in 2018 to recognize Dalit literature and establish a separate cell for the genre inside the Sahitya Akademi. Since then, the committee has been working on the concerns presented by the BDSA, but only a small portion of their measures have been implemented; Yashica Dutt’s recent victory in the Yuvaa Puraskar is indicative of this.

The Life That Exists Despite The Oppression

One would expect stories from oppressed communities to be about disparity and hardship, and for the longest time, people have been appropriating that. But reading Dalit stories has been a revelation for me. It is only after diving deep into this sea that one realizes how lovely and inspiring these stories are.

Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But…” by Gogu Shyamala is one of the finest short story collections I’ve read in recent years. It gives a glimpse into the lives of these lovely individuals, who had fun despite their hard circumstances, stood up to the community when necessary, or simply continued on as best they could when faced with difficulties.

The academy has yet to honour its first writer from the LGBTQ community. Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue is a Marathi (translated into English) literary drama that transcends gender and sexuality. It’s one of the most engrossing and beautiful queer stories I’ve read from India.

These stories, however, are never recognized by prestigious awards. The acknowledgement of such stories would inspire individuals to read more and may aid in the formation of a more sensitive and compassionate vision of the world.

Besides Sahitya Akademi, our other major Indian literary prizes such as The Hindu Literary Prize, Jnanpith Award, and so on, individuals from oppressed castes account for fewer than 5% of the winners and women authors account for less than 20%. These awards have lately relocated on the route of inclusiveness, yet we only get the minimum necessary. More recently, the JCB Prize for Literature, founded in 2018, brings forth literature from all around India, including translations and debut authors, while keeping up with women but trailing behind in representing the LGBTQIA+ or DBA community.

The books that were nominated for the prizes. Photo: Amya Roy

The ‘Global’ Take On Literary Inclusivity

The Booker Prize, formerly known as the Man Booker Prize, which is recognized across the world for bringing forth the finest in fiction, has long been the pinnacle of being white-washed and male-skewed.

According to an article published by Bustle – as of 2016, just 17 of the almost 50 awards given since 1969 have been won by women authors, accounting for barely 34% of the total. Furthermore, no woman of colour has ever won the award. Third-world nations, such as India, are treading in the footsteps of this idealization of men and their ideals. With the power that the West still wields, it is critical that they use their platform to include intersectionality and bring out the unseen, unheard tales.

Certain prizes, like the Pulitzer Prizes for Arts and Letters, have been more diverse than the Booker Prize, despite only belatedly incorporating intersectionality and breaching the boundaries of patriarchy.

As a result of these historically repressive accolades, several awards were established after the 1990s to acknowledge the unheard voices. These prizes not only helped me find new authors, but they also revealed to me what I was missing. The stories compelled me to put my convictions to the test.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction was established in 1991 in reaction to the same year’s Booker shortlist, which had no female authors despite women accounting for more than 60% of published works. This award has aided the success of numerous authors, including Madeline Miller (my personal favourite), Kamila Shamsie, and others. The Lambda Literary Awards, founded in 1989, aim to honour the role LGBTQIA+ writers play in shaping the world; they contain several categories to celebrate voices from all ends of the spectrum, as well as others.

These awards mean a great deal to any voracious reader. For me, these prizes may not be the only resort to finding books, but it is a major one. The enchantment that books generate for readers is unrivalled; nevertheless, it is time to allow the unheard voices to create this magic for us and let the over-spoken, exhausted voices rest for a while.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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