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 of the JCB Prize included many first authors this year. Have literary prices become more tolerant for novice authors?

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

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

When the pandemic first struck, many of us retreated into the familiar and sought reassurance in the known. There is no doubt that businesses, including book publishing and 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 redefined the way they operate. This year we have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of admissions compared to last year. We can also assume from the overwhelmingly supportive audience who received the Long List for 2021 with such eagerness that the books, readers, and the power of words, storytelling will remain constant even in the rapidly changing and fluid times we live in. .

The shortlisted books defy neat gender categorizations. Does this reflect how contemporary Indian literary sensibilities challenge Western aesthetic expectations?

There has to be a definite shift in the way we measure Indian writing – the stories that Indian writers craft are rooted in our soil and yet they convey a comprehensive narrative that ties them to the firmament of the world. We live in polarized and fractured times and the fiction we read reflects current reality. Books that touch us don’t necessarily stay within the neat genre lines. In fact, some of the best books we’ve read defy categorization. These books encourage speech and defend important voices.

Since its inception, the JCB Prize has been known for its inclusiveness with works translated from many Indian languages ​​nominated each year. However, is there anything left to be desired when it comes to the portrayal of Dalit and Bahujan authors?

Translations are an integral part of the objective of the Prize. Entries come from publishers across the country. The jury reads and rereads each book – each book must stand out through the strength of its writing, and this is where the spirit of inclusion lies. Who is the author, from what region, is irrelevant. The act of storytelling is what the Jury invests heavily in.

Even in the rich literary world of India, millions of stories remain unknown because they are not translated into the language of the majority. The uneven quality of the translation often means that the nuance of the original language is lost. Much depends on the quality of the translation of a book and also on the quality of its edition.

What is your vision for the award and do you plan to include translations from more Indian languages ​​in the coming years?

My hope is to make the JCB Prize for Literature a true representation of what India is reading. I want to open up a whole new world of books for jury review. In the past three years, almost 50% of the applications we have received have come from Delhi and Maharashtra. This year, only 20 percent came from those two states and that says a lot in terms of added diversity. I also hope that the award encourages readers to consider Indian literary culture as a whole – in translation, in Indian languages ​​and in English.

I think 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 identical quota of entries for works translated 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 each year, including smaller, independent publishers from different states. Engaging with them is always the top priority for us. The jury, at the end, read with the same fervor and the same discernment what the editors send in by way of nominations – works originally written in English and translations -. While a book can be strong as an original work in its own language, what the jury reads is the translation – a book is rated on how it ultimately stands.

When it comes to what India loves 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 translation becomes paramount and to truly say that mainstream publishing is representative of Indian literature we need to look at active programs which hope to offer insight into the various literary works created. within several languages ​​in India.

What role do you see the Southern Literary Awards playing in providing a platform for diverse voices?

The awards increasingly present readers with books that open up a new world view to them. With each new reader brought into a new story comes the opportunity to transform the thought process of a people. They also allow an author to be praised for their vivid and 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 on new impetus when awards bring attention to deserving books, leading to increased book sales, which is a vital contribution.

As an author, producer of literature festivals and founder of a literary consulting firm, how do you see the changes in the publishing world 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 of writing, a new global narrative is underway. Postmodern, post-apocalyptic and dystopian urban narratives, a lot of local, rooted, humanized-as-a-result-of-what-we-have-spent-writing are taking place, and that’s not necessarily all dismal and tragic fact. We have learned to celebrate romance, families, human bonds in a more profound, almost respectful way, and this is reflected in new experimental writings not only in fiction but also in poetry and non-fiction. New and not-so-new mediums of storytelling have gained in strength – podcasts, audiobooks are just a few examples and are seeing tremendous growth in terms of themes, numbers and sales. Adapting the book to the screen is another area where there has been a push and signals an era where new collaborations are taking adventurous forms. It is a truly transformative time for all of us. Literary festivals have adapted and are moving forward mostly 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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