As Razia Iqbal attests, the prospect of judging the Man Asian Literary Prize was an intimidating one. Whilst her position as the presenter of the BBC program Talking Books, and her personal passion for literature meant that she is an avowed bookworm, reading the 90 plus books submitted to the Man Asian prize in a couple of months was still something of a challenge.
The most intimidating aspect of this mammoth reading list however was the responsibility of sitting in judgement, not only of the individual books in question, but of Asian literature as a whole, since the prize has become something of a barometer of the strength of the literary scene in the continent. The rapid success of the prize reveals that Asian literature is thriving; as Iqbal herself stated as she unveiled the shortlist ‘every book on the shortlist would merit a place on the Booker Prize’.
Iqbal’s passion for literature started at a young age, books were, for her, ‘more than just a passing cultural pursuit. For me reading was like breathing. I always found it harder not to have a book with me. What I think attracted me to books was the way in which they allowed you to see the world through a new prism, I always found the connective power of reading something very human’.
This connective power of books and their ability to teach the reader something about a different culture is one thing that Iqbal valued very highly when judging the Man Asian Prize contenders; as she states ‘books present a world view very different from the media, it is considered and reflective and it has an emotional impact which stays with you’.
Iqbal was joined in her judging responsibilities by Chang-rae Lee and Vikas Swarup, both of whom are writers; Lee is the author of The Surrendered and Swarup is the author of Q&A, which was adapted for the cinema as Slumdog Millionaire. The fact that Iqbal was the only non-writer on the panel added an extra frisson to her judging responsibilities. ‘The other judges’ perceptions of reading was very different and therefore we thought that might lead to some different conclusions’. The judges were also based on three different continents with Lee in America and Swarup in Asia. Despite these challenges, the judges found that their choices for the Shortlist was unanimous, and that they all agreed to expand the shortlist to an unprecedented seven titles; a testament to the strength of the shortlisted novels.
The criteria for judging these books were, for Iqbal, simply ‘the quality of the reading experience; that you feel that the book coheres, that the structure of the novel was coherent’. Novels that Iqbal found most appealing whilst growing up where those with links to the Asian continent. ‘Writers like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi wrote about what it meant to be Asian in a globalised world, what it meant to come from a multi-cultural city like London, which I could relate to. Their writing incorporated elements of polyphony and hybridity which were part of my own experience, whilst people like James Baldwin and Richard Wright reflected what it was to be an outsider. Literature allows you to navigate your place in the world in a profound way for a lot of people’.
By Thomas Storey