So why do we need The Jhalak Prize for the Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour?
Very simply because our voices are not represented in the country’s publishing industry at any level. As Spread the Word’s Writing the Future report noted in 2015, British writers of colour are more likely to be not agented, not published, not marketed, not reviewed, not rewarded, and therefore, unsurprisingly, not read. They are also unlikely to be invited to literary festivals or asked to comment on anything that is not narrowly linked to their race or ethnicity.
Each segment of the industry blames the other creating a merry-go-round between publishers, prize committees, critics, festival organisers and agents, all of whom are unwilling to face up to one basic point: the clearly evidenced institutional bias and structural problems which actively undermine diversity rather than fostering it.
Against this backdrop, the Jhalak Prize is not a tokenistic attempt at diversity but rather a celebration of it. The prize puts inclusion at its very heart and will actively seek out, honour and reward home grown literary talent and achievement. As the prize director, Nikesh Shukla, noted, "the response to calls for equality and diversity, as echoed by Kristen Stewart in the run-up to the Oscars, patronisingly tell us to get up and do something". The Jhalak Prize is one step in "doing something".
The Jhalak Prize will be unique in that it will be accepting entries first published in the UK in 2016 by a writer of colour who is a British national/resident. This will include (and not be limited to) fiction, non-fiction, short story, graphic novel, poetry, children’s books, YA, teen and all genres. The prize will also be open to self-published writers. The aim is not only to the find the best writers of colour in the country but to establish a clear pipeline toward literary achievement for home grown talent.
The literary legend Toni Morrison noted in 1981: "We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." Over 30 years later, that call to action is even more desperate and urgent for the UK. The Jhalak Prize hopes to be one step towards lessening our isolation, and building just such a heroic movement for British writers of colour.
Sunny Singh is an author and chair of The Jhalak Prize for the Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour.