(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.