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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Open book

By holding up first-time writers, indie publishers, diverse voices, Booker shortlist mirrors a moment of cultural change.

By: Editorial | Updated: September 18, 2020 8:42:59 am
The odds have been stacked against the Indian woman scientist for a long while now.

The shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize takes off from where it signed off last year, when it awarded the Prize to two contenders for the first time since its inception in 1969. This year, once again, it has thrown convention out of the window and opened up Anglophone literature to a world of possibilities that thrive outside of the publishing industry’s most favoured combination of white, male, middle-class heterosexual experiences. Of the six shortlisted books this year, as many as four — Burnt Sugar by Indian-origin writer Avni Doshi, The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Real Life by Brandon Taylor — are first novels; four of the shortlisted writers are women; four are persons of colour. From racism to climate change, from the unsung Ethiopian women soldiers of the 1935 Abyssinian crisis to a difficult mother-daughter relationship, further complicated by dementia, the shortlist offers a unique glimpse into the interior, political and social lives of those often under-represented in mainstream literature.

Diversity in publishing also rests with those making critical decisions about who to publish and what to award. The last year has been one of tentative hope. In the US, several leading publishing houses have made progressive changes in management; in the UK, an organisation called Black Writers’ Guild has been formed to monitor diversity in publishing. The five-member Booker jury this year is representative, too. It includes award-winning British poet and playwright of Ethiopian origin, Lemn Sissay, academic Emily Wilson and the writer and first black woman publisher in the UK, Margaret Busby, who is also the chair of the jury.

When she announced the longlist in July, Busby had remarked that it was representative of “a moment of cultural change”. In taking the onus upon itself to hold up first-time writers, indie publishers and a diverse range of voices, the shortlist has taken another step towards an inclusive future for literature’s most popular form.

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