The Commonwealth Book Prize has just announced its shortlist. (Diarise: regional winners to be announced 22 May and overall winner on 8 June.) It promises to be a wonderful, wonderful collection of novels; and I’m excited to read many on this list over the summer. What does this list illustrate? At the risk of being knocked over the head for being a harbinger of re-hashed postcolonial critique, I’m still going to say it: does the Commonwealth Other consist solely of (largely white) South Africans and Indians, with a smattering from elsewhere (including a Zambian: yeay!; a Sri Lankan: a shoutout to the ancestors!; and a Pakistani)?
While I’m truly appreciative of the work that these writers have done, and have no criticism of the fact that their work is deserving of nomination, such a India-South Africa heavy contingent makes me wonder about the reasons why people from other Commonwealth nations do not appear with the same frequency. The list hints heavily of the British colonial mission in South Africa and India, and how the subjects there — British transplants to those locations, or ‘native’ inhabitants — were shaped as colonial subjects. The continued dominance of a certain segment of the population of India and South Africa on British prize lists simply reflects that history’s hand on the present moment: those who were already constructed (by the Crown and the Raj) continue to have access to the power that Britain wields, and we continue to value what the British regard as their prize possessions.
* And the South African Books LIVE blog reminded its readers that Shelley Harris, the author of the novel ‘Jubilee’, doesn’t even identify as South African — she describes herself as “completely and happily British” — while another South African writer who lives in France, Denis Hirson, the author of ‘The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street’, was shortlisted in the Canada and Europe category.