The best of the bottom? No thanks

2015-05-17 15:00

In a bold move, and going against the “done thing” in literature circles, South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri has rejected his nomination for the inaugural Financial Times Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards.

Among other things, he objects to the term “emerging voices”, which so easily becomes attached to African writers.

Shukri has written two successful, critically acclaimed works of fiction: The Silent Minaret (2005) and I See You (2015).

Despite literary prizes playing an important role in creating otherwise unlikely publicity and writers usually being grateful for the accolades, Shukri’s resentment for the term, “emerging voices”, has put action to the thoughts held by many in book circles.

After all, how many times have we seen African and “Global South” authors shoved into a type of weird, Third World category for “developing writers” or “voices from below” or some equally condescending label? Even the organisers of the Man Booker International Prize have never really explained why it’s necessary to have another award, besides the Man Booker Prize, instead of simply extending the boundaries of the original one.

Shukri has done what many other writers should but don’t do, probably because the industry is small and dominated by established authors, and the budgets for works by new authors are even smaller.

But it’s not just about literature – the awards have split up different types of art and limited the ability for any crossover. The awards recognise works of literature from Africa and the Middle East, films from the Asia-Pacific region and digital and fine art from Latin America and the Caribbean.

In an op-ed piece published on the blog Africa is a Country, Shukri rightly questions this arbitrary division of arts, which bears further testament to the apparently dismissive and shabby way organisers view works from the “developing world” – to be divided and to thus conquer the selection process more easily.

It would seem that, even in the world of art, where there is the opportunity to escape the confines of hierarchies, the divisions remain intact, wrapped up in shiny trophies and a condescending high five.

You’re the best of the bottom, they seem to say, and Shukri’s defiance of this is a victory for African writers and artists of all kinds.

I am sure his rejection of a nomination for the awards will come at great personal cost to him and his career. However, I applaud his decision of principle and hope it will rub off on other writers and somewhere – in a candy-coated utopian future – on the organisers themselve

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May 19 2019