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.
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.
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.
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 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.