This year both the Nobel and the Booker prizes have been surrounded by controversies. The Booker Prize announced two winners — Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
While rulings had been made earlier to rule out the eventuality for such an occurrence , a CNN report says: “This will only be the third time that a dual award has been given. In fact, the award changed its rules in 1993 to clearly state that ‘the prize may not be divided or withheld’ after the second two-author win.”
The £50,000 will be shared by the two writers.
Public opinion expressed in tweets said: “My only booker take is that it is a shame that the first black woman to win has to share the glory” and “The Booker has simultaneously delegitimized its own worth and diminished the achievements of a woman of color with this rousing double win.”
Two novels by Rahman Abbas, a Sahitya Akademi award winning novelist in Urdu, have been picked by Penguin Random House for their Vintage imprint, which is known to publish “the world’s most thought provoking and powerful books”. Both the novels are acclaimed. Rohzin won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2018 and Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Aankh Micholi was awarded the Maharashtra State Akademi Award in 2011.
Rahman Abbas said, “I have lost many things in my life due to my decision to write my novels, exactly as I wanted to write them but fortunately, I have regained a lot without compromising on my writing. The news that my two novels would be published by Penguin-Random House in English has pleased me beyond words. It’s like a dream coming true before my eyes. I’m very thankful to Zafar Anjum of Kitaab and Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda for having made it possible.”
About: Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.
About: An English Writer is a story about a forgotten English poet/writer, C.J Richards (retired I.C.S) who lived and worked in Burma for over 35 years as an Indian Civil Servant. He retired in 1947 and settled in Swarraton, Hampshire in UK. Although he wrote seven books and many articles on Burma and UK, not many people know much of him and his life. The novel “An English Writer” explores the life of the English writer and defines his connection with both communities, Burma (Myanmar) and Britain as a poet and writer. The story, set in present Yangon, transports people back into the times of the English writer, C. J Richards, from 1920 to 1947 and then to 1976.
Aysha Baqir, is an author with mission, vision and commitment. A development consultant in Singapore, she was born and raised in Pakistan. She has recently launched her powerful, debut novel titled Beyond the Fields. Growing up in Pakistan, it was not a norm for parents to send their daughters to colleges abroad. But for Aysha, things were different as her parents agreed when she won a scholarship to pursue her studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her university experience sparked her passion for development and Aysha chose to return to Pakistan where she discovered that girls and women in villages needed access to economic resources before they could voice their demands for social justice.
She founded Kaarvan Crafts Foundation in 1998, shortly after completing her MBA. A pioneering economic development not-for-profit organisation, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, is focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women. Aysha headed the foundation until 2013 when she relocated to Singapore. She is a member of the Singapore Writers Group since August 2013 and is currently working on her second novel.
Kye Lee: Your debut novel, Beyond the Fields, is hauntingly beautiful. How did the idea come about for this book? What moved your muse? Had you ever written before? Did any writers, films or art have anything to do with it?
Aysha: Beyond the Fields is the story about a young village girl called Zara. Zara is carefree – she has dreams, she wants to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes); so, she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole wide world, is kidnapped from the fields while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.
Having worked in the villages of Punjab in Pakistan for over fifteen years, I wanted to show the plight of village girls and women. Thousands of girls and women are assaulted each year and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support. And, just not in Pakistan, but across cultures and continents.
I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted teenager who studied in American School, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.
I was in my bedroom, sitting on the stool, dozing with a hookah in my hand. A sliver of light was permeating, creating a clever shadow on the wall, a ghost dancing. Lunch wasn’t ready yet — I sat in a pensive state; I was dreaming as I puffed… If I were Napoleon, could I win the battle of Waterloo?
Right at the moment, an unexpected sound crept in, “Meow”.
As I tried looking, I couldn’t perceive anything. First, I thought that the Duke of Wellington had taken the shape of a cat and was approaching me to beg for some opium. Full of enthusiasm, tough as a stone, I thought I’d say that the Lord Duke shouldn’t ask for more, given that he had been awarded previously. Too much greed isn’t healthy. The Duke replied, “Meow”.
With careful observation, it dawned on me that this wasn’t Wellington! This was a petty cat that had drunk the milk reserved for me as I was busy arranging soldiers on Waterloo’s field — unaware of the cat’s theft. The beautiful cat, filled with satisfaction after finishing all the milk was intent on making its satisfaction known to this world.
In a mellifluous tone, it said “Meow!”
I did perceive that the cat was mocking at me, that it was laughing internally as, facing me, it thought; “Somebody dies drying the pond; somebody eats the koi.”
I perceive that the “Meow” had the intent of understanding what was on my mind. I perceive that the cat’s thought was, “I’ve finished your milk—now what do you say?”
We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”
Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.
In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.
Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.
Author: Ismat Chugtai (Translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
Narrating the tale of a lonely child called Shaman, the novel, The Crooked Line, by Ismat Chugtai is considered to be one of her finest works. Written is an extremely poignant and evocative manner, Shaman’s story takes us through her experiences of growing up as a woman in a conservative Muslim family.
Ismat Chugtai is regarded as one of the most rebellious and provocative women writers in Urdu and continues to be a luminary till date. The Crooked Line was originally published in 1945 and was translated into English fifty years later, after it was compared to The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir for its strong portrayal of gender and politics. However, the two books are starkly different in their approach with The Crooked Line being a novel while The Second Sex is a treatise; though it has always been argued that the former could be semi-autobiographical.
“To begin with, her birth was ill-timed.”
These powerful lines announce the arrival of Shaman, the youngest child in a large and affluent family. In a way, they also set the tone for what is yet to arrive in the novel. Everything about Shaman is encapsulated in these lines — ill-timed, ill-mannered and ill-fated. Tracing her journey from her childhood to her old age, this story is beautifully layered with deepest desires, darkest secrets and emotions interwoven with the fragility of human relationships.
No No- Boy by John Okada (1956) was the first novel by a Japanese American dealing with the Japanese internment camps in America after the bombing of Pearl harbour.The book was not well received by the JapaneseAmerican community initially.It dealt with issues like racism and army drafting.
The novel centres around a Japanese American who refused to draft for the second World War by pledging loyalty to the Emperor Hirohito backed by the allied troops and to fight against those that “misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”.
It was so hard for Okada to find a publisher in America that he published in Japan in 1956 with a Japanese English language publisher. In 1971, CARP ( Combined Asian-American Resources Project) found the bookand republished it. Now a copyright controversy rages between the University of Washington professor Shawn Wong ,who republished the book in 1976 for CARP and Penguin. Penguin recently republished the book in May 2019 as part of a series featuring Asian American writing. Penguin claims that as the book was never registered in America, it has no copyright protection in USA, where it sells well and is taught as part of university curriculum.
When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.
The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.
Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.