(Originally posted on Facebook, where I tend to post these kinds of pieces. )
Marlon James’ Man Booker win is staggeringly amazing on so many counts, not least because he’s only the SECOND black writer to win it in nearly 50 years, and the Prize has only ever had one black judge (this year), and 2 Asian judges. (The media won’t mention this.) It’s so blatant it has always felt like a statement.
I can really appreciate how his win signals renewed hope for many writers of colour.
The Prize is a career-maker, for sure, but will it also be a game-changer this time? When Ben Okri won it 25 years ago, it did not improve the fortunes of black African novelists. It took the The Caine Prize for African Writing to do this with its profile-raising winners, shortlists, anthologies and annual workshops in Africa, attended by many aspiring writers including Ngozi Adichie. Trend-watchers will observe that the industry has already slowed down in publishing African fiction (as we predicted…) and will probably turn its attention instead to Caribbean fiction, which has been shamefully overlooked for decades. ‘Where is the next Marlon James?’ it will ask. The fact that the decision-makers in the industry are from a demographic that is 99% not from an African-origin background is a huge factor.
Some prizes aim to raise the profile of whole continents, countries and demographics, such as the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; The Complete Works II-Promoting diversity and quality in British Poetry, Paul Burston‘s Polari First Book Prize for LGBT writers, Kwame Dawes’ African Poetry Book Fund, and my own, Brunel University African Poetry Prize –http://www.africanpoetryprize.org/. As well as publishing initiatives such as Jacaranda Books Art Music Ltd. And let us not overlook Peepal Tree Press, which has spearheaded publishing great Caribbean literature for the past 25 years.
I’ve watched publishing trends for thirty years and one person winning a major prize does not always change the game. It has to be backed up by work on the ground and publishers with a serious commitment to representing all kinds of writers – forever, not just as the latest trend.
Audio Interview with me by Tyrone Ali at Bocas Litfest in Trindad, April 2014.
I disagree with the protestors who wanted to, and in effect, shut down ‘Exhibit B’ last week. I had booked to see it and was looking forward to witnessing such a bold and challenging work of art. However, the protestors decided it was racist, accumulated over 20,000 signatures, and their protest at the venue on Monday night led to the show being cancelled, even though some of them, strangely, now seem to think it had nothing to do with the 200 of them gathered with drums and protest outside the venue doors with the explicit intent of not letting people through. And even though, when I casually mentioned I was going to Exhibit B at a talk I gave about my own work at Goldsmiths a week earlier, some of the audience said they objected to it and would be there outside the venue and would be among the people who would stop me entering.
The problem is that I’m perfectly capable of making up my own mind about whether a work of art is racist and I object to people deciding for me, people who have not even seen the performance, which they’ll proudly declare. Their debate on this matter ranges from dictating the terms on which we artists create art, what is acceptable and what isn’t (to them); to speaking on behalf of the ‘black community’ as if we are a homogenous entity in this country; to accusing those white people who object to their protest as racist. The campaign leader, Sara Myers, said on film that ‘our’ ancestors ‘memories will not be used for art’. It’s so ridiculous it beggars belief, really. I expect her to come up with a list of dos and don’ts, so that we know from now on what is acceptable to her as the self-appointed spokesperson of ‘the black community’. The protestors have been very vocal in the media in their opposition to the performance but their victory is their own, it is not mine. Actually, I’m furious and ashamed. We’ve just had a debate on Facebook about it and their arguments are all over the place and don’t stand up to scrutiny. People are angry about racism, which I understand, but I think their anger is misguided in this instance. Join me on FB to see the posts.
Announced May 12th, 2014. I set up this £3000 prize for African poets when I joined the English & Creative Writing Dept at Brunel Uni three years ago. Ethiopian poet, Liyou Libsekal, who lives in Addis Ababa, is the winner of the second year of the prize this year, and Nick Makoha and Amy Lukau are runners-up. Warsan Shire was the winner in its first year. Visit site: http://www.africanpoetryprize.org/