The BS Column: The Orange, juiced

(Published in the Business Standard, May 19, 2009)

Hiroshima, Alzheimer’s, a racist 1931 rape trial, an inventor on the verge of a love affair, a pastor on the verge of death. Nothing in these themes or these characters indicates the gender of the author of the novels in which they appear, and this is where the conundrum of the Orange Prize lies.

The winner of the “Bessie” will be announced in a few weeks time, marking the 13th year of the world’s only major prize for women. In its first few years, the Orange Prize generated more heat than light, with many arguing that a prize exclusively for women writers was discriminatory at worst, unnecessary at the very least, in this century.

Over time, the Orange proved its worth to thousands of readers, though, not by creating space for women’s writing as much by redressing the invisibility of women writers. A S Byatt called it a “sexist” prize, refusing to allow her publishers to enter her books for the Orange; other women writers, from Chimamanda Adichie to Ann Patchett, had a more nuanced view, celebrating the fact that the prize gave them a virtual room of their own.

If you go through the shortlists for every year, it becomes harder to argue that the Orange doesn’t serve a purpose. A certain kind of writer—talented, but not glamorous, intensely engaged, but not always fashionable—shows up in these shortlists, writers who would have been lost or overlooked without the Orange. And over its 13-year life span, the Orange may actually have begun redefining what we think of as “women’s writing”.

It’s a shift that publishers like Urvashi Butalia know well, as women’s publishing houses witness and encourage writing by women to grow beyond the fascinating but narrow confines of writing on gender. The more popular view of women’s writing is far more of a ghetto: yesterday’s Mills & Boons, today’s chicklit and arranged marriage bestsellers.

This year’s shortlist includes: Burnt Shadows (Kamila Shamsie), Scottsboro (Ellen Feldman), The Wilderness (Samantha Harvey), The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt), Molly Fox’s Birthday (Deirdre Madden) and Home (Marilynne Robinson). The range of themes, and the historical periods, explored in these novels is broad—and it is this breadth that really defines writing by women today.

Burnt Shadows finds a narrative arc between Hiroshima and Guantanamo Bay, and among its principal characters are a Japanese woman who survives Hiroshima, and a young Pakistani whose path leads him to prison in the US. Scottsboro examines the infamous 1931 rape trial in the Deep South, where the testimony of two white women put nine black men behind bars for several years on rape charges.

The Wilderness explores the confounding, unmoored, intense world of Alzheimer’s from the perspective of a male protagonist struggling to understand his life from a few scattered clues. The Invention of Everything Else is about the growing (and imagined) friendship between the exuberant scientist Nikola Tesla and a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker. Marilynne Robinson’s eloquent, moving Home follows the stories of those we met in her previous novel, Gilead. Glory Boughton returns to look after her father, the pastor; the return of her brother Jack forces many questions for the two as they face the imminent death of their father. I haven’t read Molly Fox’s Birthday, but the blurb indicates that it’s about an Irish actress, as seen by the Shakespearean actor who borrows her house briefly.

If you read only these descriptions, you would have no way of knowing whether the authors of these books were male or female, and that is a tribute to the broader, limitless world of women’s writing today. Some critics of the Orange take this further, arguing that if the books are relatively genderless, there should be no need of a special prize for women.

The raison d’etre of the Orange Prize, however, was not to address an inequity of voice—from the earliest, most pioneering women writers onwards, women have often demanded the right to write about what pleases them. The founders of the Prize saw and addressed an essential inequity in the space that women writers were allocated—fewer column inches, fewer reviews, fewer soundbytes on TV shows, and most crucially, less space in the public memory.

Each year, the shortlist does what it did for me this year, and what it has for 13 years running—underlines the presence of one or two well-known women writers, and introduces us to several more who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks. Take women’s writing from the margins to the centre, says the Orange, and until women find themselves at the centre without need for special pleading, there will always, sadly, be a need for the prize.

3 comments

  1. Nilanjana, how do you respond to initiatives to promote Muslim writing? There's a Muslim writing prize in Britain (http://www.bookbrunch.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1369:penguin-pledges-commitment-to-muslim-writers-awards&catid=913:prizes&Itemid=86, and I've often wondered the need for such prizes, unless it is exclusively about responses to the faith. Does there have to be then a Hindu writers' prize, a Catholic writers' prize (re the Irish issue)? Or is this really about how a modern British Muslim writer responds to the world around him or her? Where would they place Monica Ali, then, who has a Muslim father, given that her second and third novels had nothing really to do with the faith? I'm not arguing against the Orange Prize; but I'm curious about identity-based prizes. William Dalrymple, for example, came as part of the Indian contingent to the London Book Fair. And in his New Yorker issue on Indian writing, Rushdie included Romesh Gunesekera.

  2. Furthermore, Preeta Samarasan, who I have come to know lately, told me how blurbs about her work compare her with Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahii (brown, Indian-origin, etc) when she is, in fact, Tamil from Malaysia, probably with Sri Lanka/Jaffna roots somewhere….. Is she Indian? Malaysian? American? French? (She lives in France….) I realise, I’m taking this conversation in a different direction…

  3. Salil, I remember writing about my discomfort with the Orange in the first year it came out (can’t find the column, though, my archiving skills are sorely lacking) on similar grounds. I’m instinctively uncomfortable with any Prize–the Commonwealth, even the Booker-that slots writers into a particular group or club. The rationale for the Orange is proved only by what it’s done over 13 years–which was to demonstrate that women writers in the mainstream who’re not easily slotted, or who’re not pulchritudinous enough to show up often in magazines, are often invisible. For all its good work, though, it saddens me that we might need a prize based on gender. And there’s always the uncomfortable counter-example: should a novel about gender, or the lives of a woman/ women, say, be disqualified on the grounds that the author has the wrong chromosome? You can, however, justify a prize that’s gender-based by pointing to actual discrimination in the marketplace. (Do a study of the careers of women writers who’re not camera-friendly and not absolute bestsellers–it’s harsh, seeing how little support they get when they cross over into middle age. Male writers, like male actors, have a longer shelf life–and that is just unfair.)I cannot support or even understand the need for a prize based on religious identity. Could you make any kind of case at all for seeing Rushdie as a Muslim writer, Vikram Seth as a Hindu writer? I couldn’t–not even with the Satanic Verses controversy. National identity is even more constricting, though there’s a case to be made for regional identity. I remember tripping time and again when I was putting together writers for my anthology of food writing (A Matter of Taste–2005, I think). I’d often include writers like Carl Muller or Sara Suleri and then have to be reminded that they were not Indian; doing a book on food writing in the subcontinent would have, in retrospect, been more valid and far more interesting.Why gender and not faith? Because faith already has its niches–think of the market for Christian romance/ Christian millennial fantasy and SF for instance, or writings that specifically seek to address Hindu/ Muslim identity. Your criterion–such writing should be exclusively about responses to the faith–is the only one that makes any kind of sense, and even then, this is narrowing, limiting. One might argue for a general prize that examines faith in writing–one that would unite, say, a Pema Chodron and a Jyotirmaya Sharma. Re Dalrymple: he falls into the “Kim conundrum” category. I decided years ago that he qualified as an Indian writer, in the same way that Kipling’s Kim can be seen as an Indian book. That doesn’t change his passport, but could you argue that he is an outsider to India, after all these years of living and researching here? National identity is an uncomfortably limiting label.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s