The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, one of the most sought after literary awards, was announced on Friday*. Excerpts from an interview with Mark Tully, veteran journalist and author:
As a judge, what were you looking for in this year’s submissions? What appealed to you personally?
While I can’t give you details about the longlist*, I can say that we had over 70 books originally submitted. As always, we were looking really for South Asian stories, but there was no limit on the writers, who don’t have to be from South Asia. I, in particular, was very glad that there were many translations submitted, some absolutely excellent. I have always believed that one of the problems in India is that because of the dominance of English language, we don’t learn enough about the wonderful writings in other languages that are being brought out in India. That we had many translations this time interested me in particular.
And being a journalist, I have to say, I like a good story very much.
What about the representation from other South Asian countries, since the Prize is an attempt to recognise writing from the entire South Asian region?
Absolutely. The jury reflects that. We have someone from India, which is me, and then we have jury members from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh — the region is represented well in that way. The whole theme is about South Asia, and again, I am very pleased about this personally, because we are not nearly conscious enough of South Asia being a region. And because of this, all sorts of difficulties come in our way, simply because we forget.
And were the submissions a balanced representation of the region too?
Oh yes, we had a good, wide representation, very much so. And, well, you have to see how the longlist turns out, but the submissions were a great mix of different styles, translations, regions.
Considering the fact that while the theme of the entries have to be South Asian, the writers don’t necessarily have to be of the regional ethnicity themselves, do you notice a difference in threads, content, styles, of the South Asian writers and writers of other ethnicities writing about South Asia?
I don’t really notice a huge difference. Certainly, when you are reading over 70 books, the mind is also a bit muddled in some ways, but my impression is that most of the books were written by South Asian authors themselves. There is no doubt that a large number of them are of that ethnicity.
What I do notice, though, about many of them, is that they would interest a far wider audience than just South Asian readers. You might think that these writers might be a little inclined to be so rooted in their background that they would not be very relevant to readers from other parts of the world. But I didn’t think that was true.
How has South Asian literature changed? What new threads do you see emerging, especially in light of the entries this year?
First of all, there has been excellent writing from India, which I know best. I came here in 1965, and one of the people I interviewed in my early years was R.K. Narayan, and you can’t find a more wonderful writer than him. But I think what has changed very considerably is the awareness of South Asian literature, of writings on and by south Asian writers themselves. The whole literary world has opened up in part because of prizes like this one, which brings writing from regions like South Asia to readers in the West and further East as well. That has made a big difference.
And today, in light of restrictions, bans and protest, a kind of muzzling of creative and free voices, what does a Prize like this one mean?
I hope that a prize that concentrates very much on South Asia will draw everyone’s attention to the great talent that there is in this region, and make everyone realise what a tragedy it is when any limitations are put on the freedom of people to write what they believe in and what they feel what they want to write. When you get such great literature coming to such a well-established prize, it demonstrates to me the enormous loss that any move to ban books will be for everyone. It also demonstrates the problems that would arise if there were any attempts to limit a writer’s freedom, as there have been in many parts of the region.
From this year on, the prize becomes a travelling one, doesn’t it?
We are travelling. We are announcing the long list in Delhi, then we are going to London to demonstrate that this is a global festival, and we will release the shortlist there. Then we will come back to South Asia with the Galle festival, to announce the eventual winner there.
*The longlist, which was released a day after the interview is as follows:
Longlist for the DSC prize for South Asian Literature 2016
The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer
Family Life by Akhil Sharma,
Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Hangwoman by KR Meera
A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado
The Book of Gold Leaves by Mirza Waheed
The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha
Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy