The first Nobel Prize in Literature has been in existence for over a century, but only 15 women have had the honour of being worthy of the prize. There was a huge lag period of 25 years (1966-1991) when no women author was picked for the award. Not the maven Maya Angelou, a personal favourite, nor the prolific Ursula K. Le Guin, who the popular author Neil Gaiman cites as a strong influence, among a sizable list were deemed worthy.
There’s also the fact that while women authors have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature more frequently than in any of the other categories, the odds are actually stacked against them. That’s not to suggest that women haven’t won any of the big literary awards — it’s just that compared to the other sex, the ratio does seem skewed.
In India, while there are a clutch of literary awards, women authors have seldom got their due, as has been the case the world over, but the trend’s changing. Take the JCB Prize, for instance. Established in 2018, the richest literary honour in India was bagged by Madhuri Vijay for her debut novel, The Far Field, in its second year. The jury citation was glowing when it proclaimed “The Far Field is an impressively ambitious novel of stunning emotional and psychological acuity.”
Trends are changing
August end saw the Singapore Literature Prize being awarded for the first time to a young feminine voice in the English poetry section, with the festival director saying, "Gaze Back is unlike any other poetry title this year — a clarion call for gender and linguistic reclamation, searing in its sassy confidence and universal appetite.”
On Wednesday, the International Dublin Literary Award shortlisted Olga Tokarczuk, Anna Burns and Tayari Jones, winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, respectively, among 10 other authors for their 2020 edition, of which eight are women. It’s worth noting that last year’s prize winner was Emily Ruskovich, another lady.
This year, the International Man Booker Prize was awarded just last week to Marieke Lucas Rigneveld for her debut novel The Discomfort of Evening, the youngest winner of the prize as yet. The 2020 JCB longlist was brought in this week with a hurrah thanks to the exciting nominees, with several first-timers, women and translations. We caught up with Dharini Bhaskar, who has won her place on the list with her debut novel These, Our Bodies Possessed by Light.
A writer speaks
“To write a book is to take a plunge in the dark. One doesn't know if the words one has spent years gathering will find an audience, a gentle critic, or even a publisher. To have one's book validated, then, by some of India's most discerning judges is certainly more than one could have ever hoped for. To me, this feels surreal,” she affirms.
On women writers dominating the nomination list for the prize, Dharini admits, “It would be problematic if I overlooked gender altogether. Women have fought long to get a room of their own, to voice themselves, to emerge as storytellers worthy of literary attention. Therefore, to see a list dominated by women authors is reassuring. If nothing else, this signifies that the past battles haven't been in vain; that, on some days, some women write.”
A long journey
She hopes that “women writers feel there’s more positive recognition, as the road hasn’t been smooth. From the 19th century when Hawthorne complained about the emergence of ‘mobs of scribbling women’, to as recently as a decade or so ago when a well-known male writer spoke of women’s narrow view of the world, female authors have seldom been given their due,” she continues. “Rather, to quote critic Tania Modelski, they have been ‘held responsible for the debasement of taste and the sentimentalisation of culture’. I like believing that there has been a shift in perception, that, as readers, we are now less quick to dismiss a novel, poem or collection of essays by a woman — but maybe I'm just being optimistic.”
Dharini strongly feels women writers should not be strictly read by women. “Similarly, I don't think publishers use a different set of criteria while assessing manuscripts by women writers. When I worked as an editor, what mattered in a novel was the quality of the storytelling, the beauty of language, and the assurance with which the plot unfolded or the characters emerged,” she adds.
She believes prizes are important to authors. “Writing is lonely, and to know that a world you have created in isolation speaks to others is enormously gratifying. Also, fiction, especially literary fiction, often gets lost before it can find its way. Awards help bring little books to the forefront. They ensure that stories live.”
As we can see, for women authors the glass ceiling has not been broken but the cracks appear to have spread strong and wide. Hopefully, in a decade from now the discussion this article aims to hold will be rendered unnecessary.
Titles on this year’s longlist:
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
In Search of Heer by Manjul Bajaj
Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu
Undertow by Jahnavi Barua
A Ballad of Remittent Fever by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha)
These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Moustache by S Hareesh (translated by Ayasree Kalathil)
Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi
The Machine is Learning by Tanuj Solanki