Rebirth: how we moved the Jhalak Prize online

The Jhalak Prize team woke up the day after our 2020 longlist was announced to the news of the London Book Fair being cancelled. In comparison, cancelling preparations for our longlist event may seem small but it felt catastrophic to us.

Still . . . hope lingered. Our prize announcement reception was planned for the end of May, and surely things could not continue to be as grim that far down the line?

As the lockdown began, we moved our judges’ meetings online. With a judging panel based across the country, we had already been relying heavily on emails but Jhalak judges’ meetings are convivial, even celebratory, occasions, marked by robust debate but also joy at discovering and discussing books and writers that can go unnoticed. We were also disappointed that the final judges’ meeting usually held over an elaborate potluck meal became impossible.

In April, we conducted our shortlist meeting on Skype but still hoped that the prize reception could go ahead as planned. Our announcement is a celebration not only for the winner and the shortlisted writers, but for our community in the book world who come together to toast not just the winner but also each other, ourselves, indeed all of us. By the time our shortlist was announced, we knew the reception would not be possible.  

However, postponing the announcement to a later date was also quickly discarded by our team. Writers need their books celebrated, perhaps now more than ever, as readings, festivals, book signings have all vanished. And publishers, editors, agents, all working in an industry that functions on the tightest margins, need to sell books. Making a noise about books – especially by writers of colour, always more precariously placed in the industry than our white colleagues – seems more urgent, even necessary. We decided to go ahead with announcing our prize on the scheduled date, except we’d do it online.

As we prepare to announce the winner, I wish we’d known then what we have learned in the past few weeks!

Despite the prize’s significant public image, we are a miniscule operation even for prizes, run entirely by volunteers, and out of our own homes. This comes with advantages and drawbacks: we are accustomed to mostly administering the prize online and without a set office space; we are a small team which means we can be flexible and quick to implement changes. On the other hand, volunteers struggled with their home and work lives in lockdown; some were ill or caring for or deeply anxious about the health of loved ones. A corollary of diaspora life means many of our families are spread across the globe with varying public health responses and medical provision. All of these raised new challenges.

The team got a crash course to use Youtube—by watching Youtube videos—as we set up our own account to announce the prize. We managed a spot on the Authors’ Club LitfestOnline for readings from our shortlist and asked the writers to send us video recordings. It may seem straightforward but we’ve been discovering that broadband access can be patchy across the UK and files came out corrupted or took hours, even days, to transfer. We learned how to record on Zoom and Skype, and the basics of film editing.

The Jhalak Art Residency entrusted to create the 2020 trophy ran into other hurdles. Who knew that art supplies are not ‘essential’ items? Suddenly no gold leaf or paint could be ordered. Our 2020 artist in residence, Neda Koochakian Fard, realised that casting services were unavailable and eventually used air drying clay, resting her sculpture on the radiator. Author and illustrator, Jane Ray, sent over a packet of gold leaf by post. A WhatsApp group allowed for feedback as the concept came together.

Koochakian Fard has titled the 2020 trophy, Rebirth, which seems apposite for a scrappy, rough at the edges ‘ceremony’ with video clips, image cards and zoom chats. But when we can be out and about again, the Jhalak judges will meet for that homecooked meal, and our little corner of the book trade will come together to celebrate together. Watch this space for that Jhalak Prize 2020 party. Even if in 2021.

The Jhalak Prize is unique in that it accepts entries published in the UK by writers of colour. These include (and are not limited to) fiction, non - fiction, short stories, graphic novels, poetry, children’s books, YA, teen and all other genres. The prize is also open to self - published writers. The aim is to identify, promote and celebrate the literary production by writers of colour in the country. The winner will be announced at a special online event beginning at 6:30 pm on the 26th May 2020.