Future of prize hangs in the balance

by David Parker

In March 2013 I stood up as Executive Director of the Man Asian Literary Prize (MALP) to introduce the Prize-giving Ceremony at what had become our usual venue in the Peninsula, Hong Kong, one of Asia’s most famous and historic hotels. At that moment there was a lot to reflect on. The Prize had been awarded on five previous such occasions, and in that short time the MALP had become routinely known as Asia’s most prestigious literary prize. That was constantly said of it despite the fact that, with USD 30,000 going to the winner (and USD 5,000 to the translator – if any), it was far from Asia’s largest in terms of cash.

Several things contributed to its high standing. Undoubtedly the first was its uniqueness as Asia’s only pan-Asian literary prize. The only workable way of being pan-Asian in our era was to have a prize open both to novels written originally in the global language, English, as well as to novels translated into English. Those who first conceived the Prize saw that the only practicable way of comparing the most distinguished Asian novels written originally in English in any given year, chiefly by writers from ex-British-colonial countries such as India, Pakistan and Malaysia, with the best work coming out of countries such as China, Japan or South Korea, was for a single panel of judges to be reading both in the same language – and so the latter in English translation. As it has turned out, works in translation have been at no disadvantage: the Prize was awarded six times, but only twice to a work originally written in English.

Another important aspect of the Prize’s international cache was that the judges chosen have been themselves distinguished writers, cultural figures and literary academics with a variety of backgrounds. Chairs of the panel have included Adrienne Clarkson, born in Hong Kong and a cultural icon in Canada as well as a former Governor-General; distinguished Irish writer Colm Toibin; prize-winning Bangladeshi-born British writer Monica Ali; leading BBC media-journalist, Razia Iqbal; and leading British cultural and literary critic Maya Jaggi. Oher judges have included Andre Aciman (US), Nicholas Jose (Australia), Pankaj Mishra (India), Gish Jen (US), Homi K. Bhabha (US), Hsu-Ming Teo (Australia), Chang-rae Lee (US), Vikas Swarup (India), Monique Truong (US) and Vikram Chandra (India).

Perhaps the most important outcome of such varied and distinguished judging panels as we have assembled is that the Prize has been consistently viewed as transparently without any particular cultural bias or hidden agenda — that is, without any aim but identifying the “best” Asian novel of the year, however the judges of that year see it. In fact in 2010, after two out of three previous winners had come from China, the Chinese novelist Bi Feiyu was momentarily struck dumb when his book Three Sisters was announced the winner, so unlikely did that outcome seem to him. He later told me that friends had asked him why he was bothering to go to the prize-giving ceremony. As we know, things aren’t always done in parts of Asia (or anywhere else, if it comes to that) at arm’s length from what might seem to be the best publicity interests of the management.

That’s not say that publicity hasn’t been important. One of the other keys to its success, especially after the MALP changed in 2010 to a Prize for an already published novel, was to

bring the longlists, and especially the shortlists, to global attention. This was done via a variety means, especially by our new-media-savvy Media Officer, Harrison Kelly, who had ways of ensuring that our various lists had thousands of hits, especially in the Asian countries that had writers competing for the Prize. Literary networks around the world had started to read and swap comments on our shortlists, as had literary journalists, all picking their own favoured novels for the Prize, as people have been doing for the Man Booker Prize over many years.

One thing was becoming very clear: the element of international competition was working to intensify attention to the Asian novel across Asia itself, judging by such media attention, as well as by bookstore chains and online sellers that had begun to feature the MALP’s shortlist, much as such stores and sellers have been doing for the Man Booker. All of this was fulfilling our central aim, not only of prizing the best of Asian writing, but of bringing it to the sort of global attention it clearly merits.

As I suppose is now well known, in late 2012 the Man Group encountered difficulties. And whereas in 2011 we were discussing with them possibilities of further expanding the MALP, we were told in 2012 that we were losing our funding. I wish to make it clear that I am personally very grateful to Man for all they did for the Prize over the years that they were our single sponsor and supporter. The decision, disappointing as it was for many writers and others, was entirely theirs to make.

I myself was in fact optimistic, as I stood on the stage at the Peninsula in March 2013, that we would find another major sponsor – as we very nearly did. Together with a small team, as well as an agent working from London, we spent over a year creating a variety of possible sponsorship packages, publicity materials and contacts. We gave presentations in boardrooms and so on. The details don’t matter. In the end, we didn’t secure the sponsorship to continue.

I myself have retired from the job that brought me to Hong Kong, as Professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong – and which was part of the reason why I was originally invited by the founding Chair, Peter Gordon, to join the Board of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is two years on from 2013 and I am now in the process of returning to Australia. From such distances I think I can draw some valid conclusions.

Losing the MALP funding has been a loss for Asian literature. No existing prize has filled the gap, nor at the moment looks like filling the gap. Certainly no international prize with a remit confined to works originally written in English can hope to give adequate recognition to the Asian countries in which English is a foreign language. The template created and developed by the MALP in those six years still seems to me the only plausible way to create a pan-Asian literary prize that can do justice to the best writing from all regions of Asia. The template exists; and the money certainly exists, not least in Asia. What we need is some people with the interest and the entrepreneurial energy to bring the two together.