Last year after the Nobel Prize was cancelled and an alternative Nobel Prize in Literature, also known as Academy Prize, was given to Marys Conde, a Guadeloupean ( a region of France in the Carribbean), this year the Nobel committee is announcing two awards as if to make up for lost time.

The award was first given in 1901, by the will of Alfred Nobel, to  “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”, judged to be French poet, Sully Prudhomme, that year. Tagore, VS Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburō Ōe,  Toni Morrison have been among the luminaries of this award. This year the winners will be announced on Thursday 10 October, 2019.

By Dr Meenakshi Malhotra

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Toni Morrison

What can you say about a writer who gave a voice and identity to a whole people — a group and a community whose silences are made to speak and sing in her books? A writer whose voice rang out with passion, courage and conviction  to detail the sub-human conditions in which her people had lived?  A trailblazer whose works depicted the toils and travails of a long suppressed people whose experiences were unrecorded in history books? A writer whose passionate courage helped her to articulate her convictions about the dehumanisation of a whole race?

Morrison was born in 1931 and grew up in a family atmosphere which provided a context for arousing a keen interest in the stories, narratives, folklore, myths and rituals of the African American community. This early interest is evident in the rich oral quality of her writings, its lyrical cadences and it’s measured and “layered polyphony’’. Later, she studied English and Classical Literature from Howard University in Washington D.C. where she acquired her BA degree. This was followed by a Masters from Cornell University in 1955.

Subsequently, she taught at Howard  University for two years. She also got married to a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison in 1958 and they had two sons, before divorcing in 1964.The next few years Morrison wrote, juggled teaching assignments and also did a twenty year stint with Random House as an Editor. This platform enabled her to identify writing talent and she was able to help many aspiring young African American writers to get published.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Wow, well start with the easy questions, eh? Well, I suppose, thinking of Rilke—whose poems and letters I’ve always loved but who I would sadly come to find out (in that way we eventually kill our heroes) was a kind of a pretentious deadbeat who shirked his responsibilities and mooched off the aristocratic patrons of the Hapsburg Empire in pursuit of his “pure” art—I have gone into myself and found that the need to write has spread its roots into my heart. I don’t know if I would die if forbidden to write, but having dug deeply, that mythic Rilkean imperative of “I must” is there, for better or worse. I write because I feel compelled to describe what I’ve seen and touched and tasted, the losses I’ve tallied, the places and people who’ve inspired me, all in pursuit of trying to better understand myself as a bicultural human being at the beginning of a new millennium. Those marks of signification help me fix the flux into something that might resemble, if not the answers, then at least the questions that are most relevant to ask when delving into the nature of our shared reality.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Well I should mention two projects that achieved closure around the same time. One is the anthology I co-edited with Alvin Pang, entitled “UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat and 50 Years of Writing from Singapore” [https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/union] which encompasses two very disparate bodies of work, one from the online journal of the arts I founded in 1999 and one from the Singaporean city-state founded as a modern republic in 1965. The main purpose behind this project was to highlight the subconscious connections that writers might share, who on the surface might not have anything at all in common. To view the Malay Peninsula through the prism of experimental poetics, then to stand on the other side of the lens and look back. I’m particularly excited that I can introduce to an American readership the really wonderful work happening in Singapore. I also just recently translated the 9th century female Tamil poet/saint Andal with Priya Sarukkai Chabria [http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/andal-the-autobiography-of-a-goddess/], and this ancient bhakti poet writes remarkable sensual yet devotional work that is as relevant to our time as it was to hers. Her fierce longing takes the shape of the corporeal body but transcends in such a way that she is continually reaching beyond herself in the way true mystics do. And because Tamil is my mother tongue, it was an important project for me, especially to resuscitate Andal not as a scholar’s creation but as a poet’s, even when that meant taking some liberties with her work, for we hoped to make her sing in a contemporary English idiom.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

If I was visual artist, I might be Gerhard Richter, he of those photorealistic blurs alongside those scraped and layered abstractions. That range, that impulse never to settle on one unity of style, when it might lead to a calcification of perception, of a repetition of motive, has never interested in me. Instead I am the formalist who believes in roughening up his enjambments; the postmodern archaic who loves forms that are simultaneously contemporary and ancient, like the zuihitsu and the cento, collage-forms and remixes that are many centuries old. I believe in a geometry of language, poems sculpted until they sit in the palm like a desk clock. But I also believe in those wild, undetermined screes of language that accumulate upon the slope of speech like some alien transmission—which they are—some spiritual guidance given the form of a salamander that skitters on the page.  I believe in translation and transmission, vision and revision, and mad distillation so that nothing can be pared away without collapsing the entire tower.