Asian Prize Changes Seem Puzzling, But Perhaps For the Better

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Miguel Syjuco (Credit: Marcos Townsend)

Editorial by Miguel Syjuco, Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize

MONTREAL: When news arrived this week that the Man Asian Literary Prize would no longer be accepting unpublished manuscripts, and instead only published novels, dismay broke out among writers. On blogs, newsgroups, email, and networking sites, the communal shock developed into debate. On one side, the door through which Asian writers could try to reach Western readers seemed suddenly shut and the MALP, as it is sometimes known, stood to lose the very thing that made it special. Some writers asked: “Why should we even finish our novels?” Others wondered: “Now that only publishers can submit to the prize, what about us anonymous unpublished authors?” On the other side of the debate, however, the changes seemed to hint at burgeoning opportunities on a greater scale that we writers seemed to miss.

My own puzzlement was profound. I was once an anonymous unpublished writer, toiling in long obscurity. Knowing the publishing industry and readership in the Philippines were not mature enough to fully support aspiring writers, I even left to hawk my wares in North America. But I found access there still limited, even to carpetbagging Asians like myself. Then came the Man Asian Literary Prize. When my novel Ilustrado won it in 2008, I experienced firsthand all that the opportunities a prize could give a writer.

Its promise glittered from its very beginning. When the MALP’s establishment was announced in 2007, older Filipino writers dusted off shelved manuscripts, younger upstarts started first novels, and a literati that had long shone with short stories and poetry suddenly saw the novel as a more viable form. In three years, the MALP seemed to become the Skype video conference call between Asian writers, Western publishers, and international readers. So their new changes seemed inexplicable. What about that untranslated writer working in Tagalog who has difficulty being published even in his home country? What about the unsupported or suppressed writers in Burma, Tibet, or Papua New Guinea? I wanted to start a petition. I wanted to write a piece critical of the changes.

But that was the knee jerk reaction of a writer who spends too much time bent over a desk. After asking around and thinking about the bigger picture, I thanked my stars that I don’t have the immediacy of a blog, and admitted that I cannot begin to know the exigencies and challenges of running a major international prize. One can only imagine how involved it must be to read through hundreds of unedited manuscripts from across Asia. And knowing how some of my countrymen had proudly written novels in a rushed handful of months, one can only imagine the discombobulating variations in quality of the submissions. (Perhaps it is not a surprise that Jiang Rong and Su Tong, both writers whose novels had already gone through the painstaking process preceding publication, won the Prize in the years before and after I did.) Although ecstatic that after three years of work the manuscript of my own novel was finally plucked from obscurity by the Prize, it had always struck me as unfortunate that the long- and short-listed works were unavailable to be read by the public.

If crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin, this crisis that has writers palpitating can certainly be a broader opportunity. The MALP previously invigorated us Asian writers, and pulled the attention of Western publishers eastward. With the MALP now accepting only published novels, it stands to invigorate Asian writers, Asian and Western publishers, and readers all over the world.

Publishers in Asia now have the opportunity to back the writers and novels they’ve developed; an effort that fosters the participation, and growth, of writers, editors, book designers, copyeditors, and all the many people involved in the publishing industry. It is hoped that Asian writers can increasingly work with those evolving publishers in their home country, rather than, as I did, circumvent them in favor of the established ones in the West. And with the Prize’s new focus on published novels, readers from all over will be able to read the works on the long and short lists, encouraging important examination and discussion of Asian writing and culture among both Asian and international readers; this space for participation, for comparison of literature from neighboring countries, does not yet exist in Asia, and it needs to.

Further, one of the strange facts is that even after I had won the 2008 Palanca Award, my country’s top literary prize, there was still no interest in my novel until I lucked onto the MALP; in such cases of consensus, perhaps the MALP can even come to raise the repute of national Asian prizes by adding a pan-Asian seal of approval. Though the new MALP rules now seem to favor work “vetted” by publishers and their often market-driven agendas, there seems to be more that can be gained for Asian literature than is lost, but only if all those involved rise to the occasion.

The MALP has obviously made a difficult decision, but I believe it to be the right one.

So, what about that untranslated writer in Tagalog? Now the onus is on the individual countries and their publishing industries, but they also have more incentive to partake in this broadening discussion. And what about the unsupported or suppressed writers in Burma, Tibet, or Papua New Guinea? It is hoped that with the raising of quality, attention, and discussion of Asian writing, the ever-more-curious international reading market will see Asian, North American, and European publishers looking deeper and more constantly into the countries from where stories have not yet been heard as they should be.

The strength of the Man Asian Literary Prize has always been its ability to ask important questions and engender lively debate. How do we define Asia? What is Asian writing? Why aren’t Asian writers read enough? What are the criteria for quality? What role can the Prize itself play? The MALP’s recent evolution merely continues to fuel that vital discussion. And – publication, international attention, and prize money aside – that is the most important reward it offers everyone.

Miguel Syjuco was awarded the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. His winning novel, Ilustrado, will be published in the U.S. in May of this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

VISIT: Miguel Syjuco’s Web site.

DISCUSS: Is Asia underrepresented in world literature?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.