What are ’emerging voices’ and ’emerging countries’?

Why the author asked for his work to be withdrawn from a prestigious literary competition.

Ishtiyaq Shukri (left) and felllow writer Helon Habila.

There is a new award just for people from poor countries. I came to know about it when the organisers requested proof of my nationality. My publisher promotes the prize, and I was unaware that they had submitted my work for consideration. I have a great working relationship with my publisher and value their support for my writing. I understand that when they submitted my work, it was because they valued the book. I understand the difficulty publishers face in promoting local fiction, and that international initiatives that draw attention to local writing are generally welcome. Literary prizes play an important role. Since ancient times, they have been a way of celebrating and promoting good writing. They bring recognition to artists and ensure their work gets noticed. That is what happened when my first novel, The Silent Minaret, received the inaugural European Union Literary Award in 2005. It drew a level of recognition and attention the novel might not otherwise have received. However, while I’m sure this new award was set up with those intentions, it is not one I support, and asked for my work to be withdrawn. This is why.

The inaugural Financial Times OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards 2015 is a cumbersome prize. Fiction prizes are only for Africa and the Middle East, film for Asia and the Pacific, and art for Latin America and the Caribbean. These exclusivist groupings do not reflect and cannot contain the breadth of creative production in those regions. Why create categories that exclude Indian literature, for instance, Brazilian film, and Tunisian art? While artists reach out to the whole world through their creativity, this award divides the creative world into arbitrary categories of their own making, pushing us into spaces too small to contain the full scope of our creative splendour. Of even greater concern, only writers, film-makers and artists from “emergent market countries” are eligible for entry. According to the organisers, “this list of emerging-market countries was defined by the World Bank Atlas Method (i.e. those with a GNI per capita of less than $12,746)”.

I do not believe in “emerging voices” or “emerging market countries”. Having spent enough of my life in contrived categories, I uphold the vision of just one world. By this I do not mean some chic Afropolitan ideal celebrating Africa only in so far as it emulates Europe. Consider the following travel advice from the May 2015 edition of a popular Afropolitan magazine to its Afropolitan readers about how to reduce travel stress with an “essential travel list” – a well-packed suitcase, toys for the kids, updated music and reading devices and a range of RESCUE products for gentle stress relief – a list so far removed from the experiences of African migrants being brutally attacked by xenophobic mobs in South Africa and drowning in their thousands in the Mediterranean, as to be obscene. No, I oppose such ghettoised categories because, however euphemistic the terminology and well-meaning the intentions, they overlook the reality that southern countries are already home to artistic brilliance of the best kind – despite their GNI. They simplify a complex world, so that excellence in “developing countries” is rendered as invisible, as rare, and as exceptional as poverty and human rights abuses in supposedly “developed” ones. To contrive “special” categories for artists in poorer countries, and to use their GNI to justify such tokenism is not praise, but diminishment.

Some will think me sensitive. I am. Consider the meaning of emergent: fledgling, embryonic, infant, in the early stages of development. Is the implication that in creative terms we are children? Is that what the broken egg shell on their website is meant to signify which – let us note in passing – is not how human beings are born, but oviparous animals like insects, birds and reptiles? I ask because metaphors are important in an artistic award. We have heard our male elders called ‘boys’ and our female elders ‘girls’, and to me, the language of this prize is reminiscent of that. Call a writing competition for school children “emergent” if you must, but we are men and women who have already received global accolades in the same global arenas as our European and North American counterparts. Why, given the evidence, this insistence on classifying us as “emergent”? Is the implication that northerners are “established” simply because their countries are rich, while we are eternally doomed to an “emergent” status simply because our countries are less wealthy? Do the organisers imagine that “emergent’ is what we aspire to be? That we will revel in the training wheel prizes while northerners get the real awards? This award is not a step forward. It takes us back. The implication that, as a whole, we are not yet developed enough to be admitted as equals suggests a view of Africa in which Achebe, Mahfouz and Gordimer are seen as exceptions to the underdeveloped norm. These distortions arise when the language and values of the market are imposed on art and literature. I hope the organisers will reconsider the terms of their award, for while our markets may be “emergent”, our writing, our voices and our agency are not.

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Can economics measure all? What are we to make of a prize where a criterion for entry is not the quality of one’s writing, but the GNI of one’s country? What has a GNI of exactly $12,746 got to do with the quality of one’s work? Because the World Bank Atlas Method says so? In which case, who are we to ask about a country with a GNI per capita of $12,747, to ask what reason is given to artists from such countries for their exclusion – “Your country is not poor enough?” To wonder whether this is why Equatorial Guinea is the only African country not on the list? While it is indeed an oil-rich country, most of its wealth has been siphoned off by its elite, leaving most of its people poor. Ten percent of children there die before the age of five. What kind of thinking about the world leads to such distorted conclusions – and the resolve to press ahead with implementation regardless? This is what happens when cultural production is conflated with markets, and the World Bank Atlas Method becomes the bouncer. The world is flattened out.  Who are these organisers, still drawing arbitrary lines across the creative world like powerful men drawing maps in a bygone era? What do they really know about the creative life and process, of literature and art – other than as acquisitions? 

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However well-intentioned, this is an ill-conceived award.  Also telling, is the additional requirement for artists to submit their passports or proof of nationality. Are European and North American artists ever interrogated in the same way? This distrust of southerners contradicts a key aim of the award – “to reward artists who further understanding of their region”. Why bother understanding regions when you do not trust the artists who depict them? This attitude from the organisers is in sharp contrast to that of readers. To readers, artists are known by their work. Yet, even as the organisers seek to reward the work, the work itself is not sufficient commendation. Passports and proof are paramount, which raises another issue – dual passport holders. Are Equatorial Guineans with South African passports for example, or French nationals who also have Algerian passports eligible?

Such tokenism is not isolated or uncommon and one almost objects to having to object – again.  In 2007, Britain’s Decibel Penguin prize for writers from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds was accused of racial discrimination.  Novelist Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal described the prize as “a special pat on the head for Britain’s ethnic minorities”. Eventually, the prize was forced to change its ethnic entry criteria. Still, here we are in 2015 faced with the same kind of thing. I can draw little distinction between the Decibel Penguin as was and this award. One cannot disguise tokenism by replacing ethnic criteria with economics. What, after all, is the ethnic majority in eligible countries?

If we are to have international prizes, let them be truly international, open to all artists from all countries – whatever their GNI. Let the work be considered in an equal arena. That is all Africans want – to be treated as equals. But equality remains elusive and wealthy award organisers apparently unwilling to concede that books, canvases and screens in poor countries are already illuminated with brilliance, just as they are in rich ones. Why does this threaten them so?

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.