Asian fiction has traditionally been split upon lines recognizable to anyone interested in the regional politics of the continent; the Indian subcontinent to the South, with its myriad array of internationally renowned writers and China and Japan to the East, with their own distinctive literary traditions. Whilst this model is necessarily reductive there is some truth to it since the South and the East, each of which has their own cultural and literary industries, rarely share the same stage. This is something that The Man Asian Literary Prize, and its Chairman David Parker, would like to change.
As David Parker explained to The Culture Trip, The Man Asian Literary Prize aims to emulate its namesake The Man Booker by being a force for cultural exchange. ‘Our aim with the Man Asian Prize is not only to represent Asian literature to the world but to represent Asian literature to Asia itself as a means of fostering dialogue and dispelling stereotypes’.
It is his belief that promoting the best of Asian literature through the prize will engage Asia’s distinct literary communities in a continent wide cultural discourse. ‘Our aim is to create a many levelled conversation about the literature of the region, bringing together the two big blocks, the east and the south. The great benefit of literary prizes is that they prompt discussion and debate – they solicit a personal opinion from readers and writers and foster critical debate – and this is what we are striving for with the Man Asian Prize, but on a continent wide, transnational level. By doing so we benefit from the growing cultural confidence throughout the region, and also help to nourish that confidence by celebrating the rich literary cultures that exist here’.
Central to this ambition is Parker’s belief in literature as a cultural force, one which can dispel stereotypes and broaden minds. ‘Novels are a far more powerful cultural tool than the media or television; literature plays a role in forming consciousness – cultural consciousness – about other countries but also about one’s own’.
Beneath these lofty ambitions is the belief in the abundance of brilliant novels written and published in Asia which are often not read outside their native countries. The prize redresses this by highlighting the work of writers who have not developed an international profile, alongside some of the luminaries of Asian fiction. ‘We strive to judge any novels on their own merits without any political or cultural agenda. This often can lead to some interesting juxtapositions, as it has done this year with a writer like Murakami alongside debut novelists Rahul Bhattacharya and Tarun J Tejpal. Promoting the translation of Asian fiction is also key, and part of the prize money is awarded to the translator of any winning novel, if there was a translator.’
Since its founding in 2007 the Man Asian Literary Prize has seen a rapid rise in its profile, and whilst it has not yet reached Booker levels of ubiquity, it is already being seen as an important part of the literary calendar in the West, and throughout Asia, reflecting an increase in popular demand for translated books by Asian authors.
Parker believes that contemporary Asian literature has an important advantage over fiction from the West in that Asian writers are able to tap into the rapid cultural changes which have occurred in living memory. ‘A lot of the fiction which we see coming out of certain parts of Asia, which is really successful, is that which relates intimate lives to the sweep of history – novels that are akin to the 19th century European classics. They are epic stories which are implicated in momentous historical changes and events, such as the Cultural Revolution in China; there is none of the cultural weariness or the insularity of language which we find in contemporary Western fiction. Asian writers are in the middle of powerful historical currents and their works reflect this and are all the more compelling for it’.
The Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlist will be announced on January 10th.