The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh was named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize on March 12 -- and was thus a contender for the final prize to be announced in April. But it seems there was one hitch. His publishers were oblivious to his objections to the term "Commonwealth Literature". For isn't it "completely unlike any other literary term (would it not surprise us, for instance, if that familiar category "English literature" were to be renamed 'the literature of the Norman Conquest'?)" as he wrote in his letter to the contest administrators.
"So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book's merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive."
The Commonwealth Writers Prize, established in 1987, is sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation and administered by Booktrust. Last year's £10,000 Best Book prize was won by South African author JM Coetzee for Disgrace (Salman Rushdie was also in the competition for The Ground Beneath Her Feet). The Best First Book prize of £3,000 had gone to Canadian author Jeffrey Moore for his debut novel, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain (Thistledown Press).
The following is the list of the Regional Winners this year and the eventual winner is to be chosen out of these:
Africa: The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda (Oxford University Press, SA)
Caribbean & Canada: The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami (Knopf, Canada)
Eurasia: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (HarperCollins, UK)
South East Asia & South Pacific: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (University of Queensland Press, Australia)
Best First Book
Africa: Thirteen Cents by K. Sello Duiker (David Phillip Publishers, South Africa)
Caribbean & Canada: Burning Ground by Pearl Luke (Flamingo, Canada)
Eurasia: White Teeth by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, UK)
South East Asia & South Pacific: The Company by Arabella Edge (Picador
Full text of Ghosh's letter to the contest administrators:
18 March 2001
Dear Sandra Vince:
I have recently learned that my novel, The Glass Palace, has been named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize. I gather that this means that it is also a finalist for the overall contest to be held in April. I am, of course, gratified to know that the jury liked my book. Yet, I must admit that this particular announcement took me by surprise for I was not aware that my book had been submitted for the Commonwealth Prize. I have since discovered that publishers routinely submit books for prizes without expressly consulting their authors.
I have on many occasions publicly stated my objections to the classification of books such as mine under the term "Commonwealth Literature". Principal among these is that this phrase anchors an area of contemporary writing not within the realities of the present day, nor within the possibilities of the future, but rather within a disputed aspect of the past. In this it is completely unlike any other literary term (would it not surprise us, for instance, if that familiar category "English literature" were to be renamed "the literature of the Norman Conquest"?).
As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that "the Commonwealth" can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games).
So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book's merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country's history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of "the Commonwealth". I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition.
I would like to add that I mean no disrespect either to the competition's judges or to previous winners of the Commonwealth Foundation's prizes, many of whom are writers I greatly admire. I recognize also that the Commonwealth Foundation supports a number of noteworthy social causes and undertakes many invaluable development initiatives in its member countries. My objections to the term 'Commonwealth Literature' are mine alone, and I trust you will understand that I could hardly expect to sustain them if I allowed one of my books to gain an eponymous prize.
Finally, on a note of apology I would like to reiterate that this situation would not have arisen if I had known that my publishers were intending to submit The Glass Palace for the Commonwealth Prize. It is too late unfortunately to amend that oversight; fortunately, it is not too late for you to make other arrangements for the final competition.