By Kate Whitehead
HONG KONG: Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng won Asia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, with The Garden of Evening Mists in Hong Kong on Thursday. Set in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation, the story is narrated by Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
“It was a difficult decision to make as the quality of all the books was so high,” says British journalist and literary critic Maya Jaggi, who chaired the panel of judges.
Also on the shortlist were Jeet Thayil with his debut novel Narcopolis, set in Bombay’s opium dens of the 1970s; Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for his novel The Silent House, written in 1983 but only translated into English last year; Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami with The Briefcase and Pakastani author Musharraf Farooqi with Between Clay and Dust. All but Pamuk attended the event.
“This comes as a huge shock,” said Tan when he claimed the US$30,000 award at a glitzy black-tie dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.
“The Man Asian Literary Prize has grown into one of the world’s most prestigious prizes. It is a focal point for readers internationally and within Asia. Asia is changing rapidly and naturally the prize will change and evolve as well,” said Tan.
New Sponsor Coming in April
The prize is in its sixth year and there is no doubt that it is evolving. In October the sponsor, the Man Group, announced that this would be the last year they back the prize. Chair of the prize’s Board of Directors, Professor David Parker, said there were three parties interested in sponsoring the prize and he hoped to make an announcement in April.
“I think this prize is going to go on and go, from strength to strength. So far we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible, it’s penetrating the consciousness of people living in Asian cities,” he says.
Winning the prize will be a further boost to sales for The Garden of Evening Mists, which was first published by a small press, Myrmidon. After it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, Myrmidon partnered with Canongate to produce a mass-market paperback edition.
Nominations Boost Sales
“Since the Man Asian announcement in January, we have reprinted this edition and the majority of the reprint sales have been in Asia,” says a spokesperson for Canongate/ Myrmidon, adding that they have put through two reprints since the first publication.
Also on the shortlist — for both this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize and the Man Booker Prize — was Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. Published by Faber, a spokesperson for the publisher says the Booker shortlist had boosted sales substantially and there was an impressive spike following the Man Asian shortlist, too.
“With the shortlisting of Jeet’s book for the Man Asian Literary Prize we’ve seen an increase in sales of around 45 percent, primarily in Hong Kong, but we’ve also seen an increase in sales in Taiwan, Japan and Thailand,” he says.
Chair of the judges, Jaggi describes prizes as great literary levelers. “They give books an equal chance regardless of where they are published or the clout or financial muscle of publishers,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the prize’s “shadow jury”, a panel of four bloggers who began reviewing and blogging about the books on the prize list last year. Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury member Matt Todd says one of the appeals of the prize is that it gives small publishers a chance to be read.
“I used to work in a bookshop and I know that it’s much easier to sell books that have been shortlisted for a prize. It’s a great way of giving visibility to Asian writers, the well-known ones as well as new names,” says Todd.
Book Prize is Changing Perception of Asian Literature
Literary prizes also have the power to turn the tide of opinion. Just ask Jeet Thayil. When Narcopolis was released the response from critics in India was less than favourable. The newspaper DNA called it “one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere”.
“‘Anywhere!’ says Thayil as he recounts the story. ‘It wasn’t just the worst English language book, it was the worst anywhere!’”
Thayil can laugh about it now because the response soon changed. In fact, it changed the moment that Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in London.
The Man Asian Literary Prize is awarded to the best novel by an Asian writer that is either written in English or translated into English. Professor Parker makes the point that when a book is translated into English and has success in English that bounces back to the writer’s reputation at home.
“The prize is empowering for national literary culture. It is empowering even for those people who only write in another language because they feel that yes their own work can be recognised, their senior colleagues have been recognised internationally and therefore its something they can aspire to,” says Parker.
The 2008 winner of the prize, Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco, had already achieved success and an award in the Philippines, but when he won Man Asian Literary Prize the home crowd came out with a massive wave of support and national pride. “The people in the Philippines just went crazy — it’s this kind of impact which creates a sense of self-belief,” says Parker.
Tan’s literary agent Jane Gregory, who flew from London to support her author in Hong Kong, whooped in delight when his name was announced as the winner. And with good reason — the prize will help boost sales and put Tan clearly on the literary map. Now as long as he doesn’t get invited to too many literary festivals, fans can look forward to another book in a couple of years. The next one won’t be set in Malaysia, nor in Cape Town, where he spends a good deal of his year, but in China.