Interview: Mita Kapur, Literary Director, JCB Prize for Literature - “I want to make the JCB Prize a true representation of what India reads”
The author, literature festival producer, and literary consultant talks about her vision for the ₹25 lakh JCB Prize presented each year to a work of fiction by an Indian
The JCB Prize longlist included many debut authors this year. Have literary prizes become more accepting of first time authors?
I would say that a literary prize is more about quality of writing than about how well known an author is or how many books they have written, unless it is an award directly related to long standing contribution to the field. On behalf of the JCB Prize for Literature though, I will say that we have always been open to new voices with many debut authors making our list each year.
How has the pandemic changed the ways in which fiction is produced and consumed?
When the pandemic first hit, a lot of us retreated into the familiar and sought reassurance in the known. There is no doubt that businesses, including publishing and selling of books, were hit hard. But with time it became clear that this new world order was here to stay and it has been heartening to see how publishers and booksellers rose to the challenge and rejigged their ways of functioning. This year, we saw a 20 percent increase in the number of entries from last year. We can also assume from the hugely supportive audience that received the longlist for 2021 with such alacrity that books, readers and the power of words, of storytelling will remain constant even in the rapidly changing and fluid times that we are in.
The books that made it to the shortlist defy neat categorizations into genres. Is this reflective of the ways in which contemporary Indian literary sensibilities challenge Western aesthetic expectations?
There needs to be a definitive shift in the way we measure Indian writing – the stories wrought by Indian writers are entrenched in our soil and yet they convey an overarching narrative that knits them to the world’s firmament. We are living in polarized and fractured times and the fiction we read does reflect the current reality. Books that move us don’t necessarily stay in the neat lines of genre. In fact, some of the greatest books we’ve read defy categorization. These books encourage discourse, and champion important voices.
Since its inception, the JCB Prize has been known for its inclusivity with translated works from many Indian languages in the running each year. However, is there something left to be desired when it comes to the representation of Dalit and Bahujan authors?
Translations are an integral part of the Prize’s focus. The entries come in from publishers across the length and breadth of the country. The jury reads and re-reads each book – each book has to stand out for the strength of its writing, and in that lies the spirit of inclusivity. Who the author is, from which region, does not come into play. The act of storytelling is what the Jury invests heavily in.
Even in India’s rich literary world, millions of stories remain untold because they aren’t translated into the language of the majority. The uneven quality of translation often means that the nuance of the original language is lost. A lot depends on how beautifully a book has been translated, and equally on how well it has been edited.
What is your vision for the prize and do you plan to include translations from more Indian languages in the coming years?
My hope is to make the JCB Prize for Literature a true representation of what India reads. I want to open up a whole new world of books for the jury to consider. For the past three years, almost 50 percent of the entries we received were from Delhi and Maharashtra. This year, only 20 percent came from these two states and that speaks volumes in terms of added diversity. I also hope the prize encourages readers to look at India’s literary culture as a whole — in translation, in Indian languages, and in English.
I feel we are in the unique position to encourage more translations and conversations in the country since the JCB Prize for Literature, from its inception, has offered publishers an identical quota of entries for both translated works as well as those written in English. In fact, publishers stand to forfeit half their entry quota if they do not submit translated works. There is a conscious effort to reach out to more and more publishers every year, including smaller, independent publishers from different states. Engaging with them is always uppermost priority for us. The jury, at the end, reads what publishers send by way of entries – work written originally in English and translations - with the same fervour and discernment. While a book may be strong as an original work in its own language, what the jury reads is the translation – a book is assessed on how it holds its own eventually.
When it comes to what India loves to read, we cannot ignore the vast riches of regional language publishing. The need to have cultural and literary voices heard is more urgent than ever before. So long as publishing is tied to language, the need for translations becomes paramount and to truly say that mainstream publishing is representational of Indian literature, we need to look into active programmes that hope to offer a glimpse of the varied literary works created within the several languages in India.
What role do you see being played by literary prizes from the Global South in providing a platform for diverse voices?
Prizes are increasingly introducing readers to books that open up a new world view for them. With every new reader introduced to a new story comes the scope of transforming the thought process of a people. They also allow for an author to be lauded for their soaring expansive imagination which creates stories, plots and unforgettable characters. These are inspiring and reassuring and at the same time, induce questioning and an active engagement with our sociocultural and political environment. Experimenting with literary forms, traditions, voices and genres gets a fillip when prizes draw attention to deserving books, leading to an increase in book sales, which is an essential contribution.
As an author, literature festival producer and founder of a literary consultancy, how do you view the shifts that the publishing world is seeing in a globalized post-pandemic world?
Yes, there is a shift the world over, not just in India. While the pandemic can claim to have spawned new genres in writing - a new global narrative is a work in progress. From Post-Modern, post-apocalyptic, dystopian urban narratives, a lot of local, rooted, humanised-as-a-result-of-what-we-went-through writing is happening and this is not necessarily all dismal and tragic. We’ve learnt to celebrate romance, families, human bonds in a more searching, almost reverent manner and that’s being reflected in some new experimental writing not just in fiction but also in poetry and non fiction. New and not-so-new mediums of storytelling have gained in strength - podcasts, audio books are some examples and are seeing quite a development in terms of themes, numbers and sales. Book-to-screen adaptation is another sphere where there has been a spurt and signals an era where new collaborations are taking on adventurous forms. It’s a truly transformative period for all of us. Literary festivals have adapted themselves and are powering forward mostly virtually or are doing hybrid versions, which is a great sign of resilience.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.