In 2019, literary spotlight shone on first time writers

Debut writers who grabbed attention this year include JCB Prize winner Madhuri Vijay, Amrita Mahale, Roshan Ali and Shubhangi Swarup

Published - December 27, 2019 01:46 pm IST - New Delhi

With themes ranging from lost childhood to the complex journey from boyhood to manhood, 2019 was the year of the debutant in the literary world with first-time works dominating — and sometimes topping — awards in India and beyond.

While debut authors wrote 37 of the 90 novels read by the jury of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature jury, the ₹25 lakh JCB Prize, India’s most expensive literary award, went to first-timer Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field .

Ms. Vijay was joined by debut authors Amrita Mahale and Mukta Sathe in JCB’s longlist of 10. Roshan Ali, also a first-timer, beat better known writers such as Raj Kamal Jha and Amitabh Bagchi to make it to the short-list of the coveted award with Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction .

Ms. Vijay’s novel — following a young woman’s search for a lost figure from her childhood — also took home the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award (fiction) besides being one of the six works shortlisted for the DSC Prize and the Crossword Book Award.

“We get a lot of submissions from first-time writers who tend to imitate or often are influenced by the style or story of an existing writer. What we look for is something unique — a plot or writing style that we haven’t seen in a writer before,” Tarini Uppal, editor at Penguin Random House India, told PTI .

Mr. Ali’s much acclaimed book is the story of an “ordinary” boy as he transforms into an “ordinary” man, while trying to figure out life and understand himself.

For Mr. Ali, who also featured in the shortlist of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, his “ability to play with language” did the trick.

“Roshan’s ability to play with language is something we don’t see very often. He has a beautiful way of seeing the very normal and mundane things in life. It immediately grabs your attention and makes you want to read more,” Ms. Uppal said.

Ms. Sathe’s A Patchwork Family won her a spot in not just the JCB Prize longlist, but also in the shortlist of First Book Award category (fiction) of Tata Literature Live! awards.

“It is a novel that doesn’t shy away from tackling important social issues, how to determine innocence or guilt, the role of law versus allegiance to family, the relevance of marriage and the impact of rape. These are all issues that would strike a chord with many readers,” said Renuka Chatterjee, vice president, publishing, at Speaking Tiger Books.

That the number of debut authors who broke into the literary scene in 2019 was noteworthy is evident from the fact that of the 90 novels that the year’s DSC Prize jury read, a strikingly high proportion of 41% were by first time writers, said chairperson of the jury Harish Trivedi.

“This ratio went up to 50% (3/6) in our shortlist. So, these break-out efforts were clearly not short on quality,” Mr. Trivedi said.

This success, Mr. Trivedi said, could be attributed to the aspirational and hopeful approach of the “wannabe writers”, combined with the increased commercialisation of the writing of novels, and more importantly, to novel-writing becoming more “professionalised”.

“The authors of many ‘first’ novels are persons who have already learnt and practised the craft of fiction in various Creative Writing courses, especially in the U.S. Many publishing houses, too, employ experienced in-house editors who invest quality time in pruning or grooming these promising manuscripts...The so-called ‘first novels’ are thus not as naturally fresh or innocent as they may seem to be or used to be,” Mr. Trivedi said.

A lot of credit also goes to publishers worldwide who are encouraging and publishing young and first time writers, Surina Narula, founder of the DSC Prize, added.

Among other debut writers who grabbed attention were Amrita Mahale for Milk Teeth and Shubhangi Swarup for Latitudes of Longing .

While both made the cut to the Crossword Book Award shortlist, Ms. Mahale and Ms. Swarup also qualified for the longlists of JCB Prize and DSC Prize respectively.

According to Karthika V.K., publisher at Westland, Milk Teeth scored because of its “elegant and imaginative prose, memorable characters, laughter and conflict that hold one’s attention”.

During the year, the publishing house brought out several other debuts which received “stellar reviews”. These included Jane Borges’ Bombay Balchao , Krupa Ge’s Chennai Rains , Sharbari Ahmad’s Dust Beneath Her Feet , Kapil Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic , and Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama .

It was also a good year in terms of shining the spotlight on fresh talent from the subcontinent.

Both the DSC Prize and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award shortlists saw many names from South Asia.

Akil Kumarasamy’s Half Gods , Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues , Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar , Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything , Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others and Sadia Abbas’ The Empty Room on the DSC Prize longlist were all debut works.

The Shakti Bhatt Prize shortlist also featured books by first time writers like Bangladeshi author Numair Atif Chowdhury’s Babu Bangladesh , and Pakistani author Nadia Akbar’s Goodbye, Freddie Mercury .

While the search for “new young voices” is an eternal one, publishers said the magic of first-time writers was expected to continue in 2020 with several debut works slated to be released in the new year.

Penguin Random House will bring out Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line , as well as Megha Majumdar’s A Burning , and Speaking Tiger has high hopes from Angshu Dasgupta’s Fern Road , a coming-of-age story set in 1980s’ Calcutta of a boy who struggles with his sexual identity.

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