Interview: Mita Kapur, Literary Director, JCB Prize for Literature – “I want to make the JCB Prize a true representation of what India reads”

The long list for the JCB Prize included many debuting authors this year. Have literary prizes become more welcoming to new authors?

I would say that a literary prize is more about the quality of the writing than the notoriety of an author or the number of books he has written, unless it is a prize directly linked to a long-standing contribution to the field. On behalf of the JCB Prize for Literature, I will say that we have always been open to new voices with many new writers making our list every year.

How has the pandemic changed the ways fiction is produced and consumed?

When the pandemic first hit, many of us retreated into the familiar and sought comfort in the known. There is no doubt that businesses, including publishing and book sales, have been hit hard. But over time it became clear that this new world order was here to stay and it was heartening to see how publishers and booksellers rose to the challenge and changed the way they operated. This year we have seen a 20% increase in admissions compared to last year. We can also assume from the overwhelmingly supportive audience that received the 2021 Long List with such eagerness that the books, readers, and power of words, of storytelling will remain constant even in the changing and fluid times in which we find ourselves.

The books that made the shortlist defy careful categorization into genres. Does this reflect how contemporary Indian literary sensibilities challenge Western aesthetic expectations?

There needs to be a definite shift in the way we measure Indian writing – the stories forged by Indian writers are rooted in our soil and yet they convey an overarching narrative that unites them to the firmament of the world. We live in polarized and fractured times and the fiction we read reflects current reality. The books that move us don’t necessarily stay within the clean lines of the 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 inclusiveness with works translated from many Indian languages ​​competing every year. However, is there anything to be desired in the representation of Dalit and Bahujan authors?

Translations are an integral part of the purpose of the prize. Entries come from publishers across the country. The jury reads and re-reads each book – each book should stand out for the strength of its writing, and therein lies the spirit of inclusivity. Who is the author, from which region, is irrelevant. 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 are not translated into the majority language. Uneven translation quality often means that the nuance of the original language is lost. A lot depends on the quality of the translation of a book, and also on the quality of its editing.

What is your vision for the award and do you plan to include translations from other 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 to the jury. Over the past three years, nearly 50% of the applications we received were from Delhi and Maharashtra. This year, only 20% came from these two states and that says a lot about the added diversity. I also hope the award will encourage readers to look at Indian literary culture as a whole – in translation, in Indian languages ​​and in English.

I believe we are in a unique position to encourage more translations and conversations in the country since the JCB Prize for Literature, since its inception, has offered publishers an equal quota of entries for translated works as well as those written in English. In fact, publishers risk losing half of their entry quota if they do not submit translated works. There is a conscious effort to reach more and more publishers every year, including smaller independent publishers in different states. Engaging with them is always the top priority for us. The jury, at the end, reads with the same fervor and the same discernment what the publishers send in as applications – works originally written in English and translations. 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 well it ultimately stands up.

When it comes to what India likes to read, we cannot ignore the vast riches of regional language publishing. The need to make cultural and literary voices heard is more urgent than ever. As long as publishing is language related, the need for translations becomes paramount and to truly say that mainstream publishing is representative of Indian literature, we need to look into active programs that hope to offer insight into literary works variety created in different languages ​​in India.

What role do you think literary awards from the Global South play in providing a platform for diverse voices?

The awards increasingly present readers with books that open up a new view of the world. With each new reader introduced to a new story comes the possibility of transforming a people’s thought process. They also allow an author to be praised for their booming expansive imagination that creates unforgettable stories, plots, and characters. These are inspiring and reassuring and at the same time, induce questioning and active engagement with our socio-cultural and political environment. Experimentation with literary forms, traditions, voices and genres takes a boost when awards draw attention to deserving books, leading to increased book sales, which is an essential contribution.

As an author, producer of literature festivals and founder of a literary consultancy, how do you see the changes the publishing world is seeing in a globalized post-pandemic world?

Yes, there is a change all over the world, not just in India. While the pandemic may claim to have spawned new genres in writing, a new global narrative is a work in progress. From post-modern, post-apocalyptic and dystopian urban narratives, there’s a lot of local, grounded, humanized writing happening as a result of what we’ve been through and it’s not necessarily gloomy and tragic. We’ve learned to celebrate romance, families, human connections in a more researched, almost respectful way, and that’s reflected in new experimental writing, not just in fiction, but in poetry and non-fiction as well. . New and not-so-new storytelling mediums have been gaining momentum – podcasts, audiobooks are a few examples and are seeing significant growth in terms of themes, numbers and sales. The adaptation of the book to the screen is another sphere where there has been a push and signals an era where new collaborations are taking adventurous forms. This is a truly transformative time for all of us. Literary festivals have adapted and are mostly moving forward virtually or doing hybrid versions, which is a great sign of resilience.

Simar Bhasin is a freelance journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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