With the existence of 70 literary prizes in the UK alone, it seems strange to discover just how few of them feature writers from minority groups and diverse ethnic backgrounds. However, with the increasing prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement, recently my social media feed has been packed with resources to educate myself on, such as books, podcasts and documentaries. In fact, though many of these books have only just been discovered by the mainstream media, the Jhalak prize has been celebrating British writers of colour since it was established in 2016.
Sunny Singh and Nikesh Sukhla, the co-founders of this BAME focused literary prize, introduced the Jhalak prize to combat the white-washed literary prizes that are traditionally showcased. Writers of colour from all around the world, not just in the UK, have been neglected, dismissed, and undervalued. This is up until recently, as we’re now finally making a greater effort to understand their stories, and to reevaluate their histories of persecution and oppression.
A 2015 report has indicated that only 8% of British publishing staff are BAME. This is a shocking statistic. It is especially shocking considering that all the great literary works that have recently gained popularity, thanks to the BLM movement, were previously, unfairly sheltered. The Jhalak prize aims to combat exactly this. Through shortlisting a handful of incredible works by BAME writers, this literary prize highlights voices that may have otherwise been overlooked. Similarly to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, its focus on a minority group within the publishing industry allows for greater inclusion, and greater awareness to a wider readership.
The prize has been subject to a host of ignorant criticism, such as the Conservative MP Philip Davies, who in 2017 argued that readers are ‘race-blind’ and that this prize discriminated against white writers. Despite this, since the launch of the Jhalak prize, a variety of publishers have now taken steps to include and encourage writers of colour. Singh has not just founded another literary prize, he’s founded a movement. This is one step closer towards tackling structural racism, prevalent in countless other industries.
This year, the Jhalak prize shortlist included the best-selling novel Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection Flèche, Romesh Guneskera’s novel Suncatcher and Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo. The genres of these books vary vastly, and though it seems odd to compare such disparate works, the prize celebrates the representation of BAME writers across all genres, from poetry to historical fiction to verse for children.
The winner was announced recently as Johny Pitts, with his debut book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, a novel exploring lives in black communities throughout Europe. Aside from the trophy and £1000 prize (which, interestingly, is funded by an anonymous donor), Pitts has gained popularity amongst a wider readership, not just exclusive to the black community. Pitts, following his win, tweeted his acceptance speech: “Can’t tell you how grateful I am, not just for the prize, but for the sustained effort by the Jhalak team to promote the work of all the longlistees. Special thanks to my agent @sprungsultan, editor Cecilia Stein, and the core Afropean team @AfropeanGeek @natillumine & @cnina86”.
Pitts’s work can be used to educate the masses about underrepresented narratives, as has previous Jhalak Prize winner Reni Eddo-Lodges’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Amid over 150 books submitted to the Jhalak prize, Afropean was unanimously preferred by the four judges: poet Roy McFarlane, journalist Anita Sethi, author Kerry Young and author Nikesh Shukla (the co-founder). Whilst 150 may seem like a small number, particularly in comparison to other, more pronounced, literary prizes, this merely reiterates the problem. There are so few literary works by writers of colour, thus prizes like these, through their representation of ethnic minorities, are making a change against that.
The Jhalak prize is a step outside the box of conventional literary prizes and publishing agencies, amplifying positive discrimination. However, this celebration of BAME writers allows us to identify, acknowledge and learn from their stories – something that is as important now as ever.
Words by Meghna Amin
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