Saturday, November 10, 2007

The First Man Asian Literary Prize

Not all hedge funds are bad: and in a world where literature - from the writers to the organisers of festivals -are usually involved in a loss-making business (writers usually receive something less than the minimum wage for the hours, or years on a novel), it is important that Man Group plc have stepped up to support a Asian Man award, a prize very much along the lines of the Man Booker in the UK.

It seems a little odd to encompass Asia into one literary prize, but actually all the other great landmasses already have their own prizes - a plethora of them in North America and Europe - and apart from the generic 'misery books' that China throws out, along the lines of Wild Swans, Asian voices seem under represented on the shelves of most bookshops.

Having spent the afternoon listening to the finalists of this, the first Man Asian Literary Prize, reading and talking about their work I have been struck at how universal their stories are, and how accessible and important. There is Jose Y. Dalisay's dark comedy about the body of an overseas Philipino who is sent home in a coffin, and gives us the flip side of the impact of US naval bases on a local community; Reeti Gadekar's clever and funny exploration of Western and Indian culture and society; and Xu Xi's novel which - like many of Hong Kong's residents - straddles cities as far apart as New York and Hong Kong.

Unlike most literary prizes, which peg their publicity on the 'big' names who file around the shortlists on 5-yearly intervals (please not McEwan/Rushdie again!) the names of this list, chosen from a staggering 200+ entrants from across Asia, are probably unknown to most people. None of them have been published in the UK or USA, which does not mean they shouldn't be. Jiang Rong's 'Wolf Totem', is a run-away best-seller in his native China, with sales figures in the league of JK Rowling (2 million official sales, and an estimated 4 million pirated copies). Nu Nu Yi, a favourite Burmese writer, has written fifteen novels, and over a hundred short stories, while five of Dalisay's novels have won the Filipino National Book Award. That writers of this calibre have remained undiscovered is surely a crime, and more than this: it is a loss to people who love literature.

Of course - and this is part of the purpose of the prize - this award will help propel some of these writers out of the 'Asian' world into a Western bookshop. Wolf Totem has been picked up by Penguin and will be out in the UK in March 2008, and many of the other writers have publishers who have shown interest.

It begs the question why do we need a prize to encourage readers to try something from a Burmese or Philipino writer? Stories are about people, and having written two novels about Chinese characters - both eminently successful - I heard nothing from the writers this afternoon that would preclude a Western reader from sitting and enjoying their tales. Because good writing is - and there is no doubt that the five writers shortlisted here are good writers - universal. It is about the human experience and that experience does not change radically if you are Thai or French or American or Chinese.

Hopefully this prize will put Asian writing more onto the map: and also give Asian writers more confidence and more encouragement to put their experiences and lives into literature. Certainly the profound changes that are happening here deserve a literary voice.

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