The Colonialism of Prizes & Publishing
Welcome to tiny spark a podcast of nonprofit quarterly. We take a close look, nonprofits, international aid and philanthropy. I'm amy custody. There have already been positive responses to the economic fallout from covid nineteen, and from the renewed demands across the nation for racial equity. As a result of these developments, many major arts organizations are striving to become more equitable vice, supporting more artists than usual. In fact, some institutions have shifted from awarding prestigious annual prizes to just one artist, and are now dividing monetary prizes and acclaim to all nominated artists. My guest today is no stranger to sharing prizes now. Molly cer- pell was the recent winner of one of the richest literary awards. The WINDHAM Campbell price for her debut novel the Old Drift. Sir Pell Zambian and she's an associate professor of English at the University of California Berkeley back in two thousand fifteen, she had one another distinguished literary prize, the Caine Prize for African writing, but surpassed decided to respond to the award in a way that would draw attention to the problematic nature of these competitions and awards it was. An impulsive decision. And it came up as the result of a question and answer session at a Book Club meeting at the British Library. Where we were asked as five African writers why we felt the CAINE Prize was administered in London and not in an African city. And I raise my hand and answered and. That not only was the prize administered in London, but that we were at the British library, and the price ceremony would be at the Bodleian library at Oxford, and that we were also asked to the British Museum and go to the House of Commons. And this was in fact quite strange. And I said whenever I. Ask these kinds of questions I'm told for the money. We are sponsored by British patrons of the arts. And so in my rebellious mode. I thought well. I'm going to make it clear. Since I have an opportunity here as someone who has a fulltime job. That the money is not the point for most writers. Later in Oxford, Oxfordshire Pella announced that she would share the fifteen thousand dollar prize with the four other shortlisted writers, a lot of pundits and reporters and people on social media assumed that this was an act of generosity. I think because I'm a woman. But it was in fact an attempt to make a political statement about the way that we set writers up to be in competition with one another rather than thinking about the nature of the art itself. And the nature of the art is that's repel is quite simply a writer. Her work is a lifeline. I always say I can't help it. I've tried to stop before. But I find that my mind invents things invent stories. I, think writing and literature in General Conservative, an escape for people can serve as a respite for people. I think it's a way to reflect back. Society to itself for us to stand an analyze the workings of human behavior, the workings of society. Sir Pell has written a number of essays in prestigious publications in what she asserts reviews as a black woman in the world with titles like the banality of empathy. Glossing Africa white men. I wanted to dig into some of these essays when I spoke to repel back in February, of course, that was before cove, hit the US, and before the black lives matter, protests grew across the nation when we spoke Sir Pal told me that back in two thousand, fifteen and Oxford when she announced that she would split the Caine prize with the other nominees. She said her announcement was not received as the political statement she had hoped to make when I announced that I was splitting the prize it was in my acceptance speech, which was not. Recorded by news reporters or TV casters, private event and I brought the other four shortlisted writers up on stage with me and I said these are all writers who I greatly admire and respect. And I made clear the intention behind what I was doing. Immediately, but because it wasn't recorded, I think the news that a young woman had split. The prize was enough. To make people believe that this was an act of generosity I. Also, you know John Birger split the Booker Prize that he won between himself and the British by Panther Party and his entire acceptance speech was about why. And, that was read philosophy as the political statement that it was. They think also an arts prize was split between five artists who wrote to the judging committee and asked them to split the prize between them, and so again each case there's kind of a written statement about why this is happening. In my case, it was performed on up on stage, and so I think just the news of splitting the prize people assumed that I was doing it out of a sense of. Generosity rather than a sense of. Political statement or a belief him justice in equal distribution. Did that frustrate you not particularly I guess people thought they were flattering me now I mean I didn't mean for really to be a statement to the world about the kind of person that I am I meant for it to be a statement to the CAINE Prize I've been shortlisted for the CAINE Prize in two thousand and ten and going through the exact same rhythm, a visiting London and going to these various landmarks of British history and culture. A second time five years later. I, think is really what prompted me to do it and I. wanted to make a statement to the CAINE Prize, which is, you can actually change the structure of your prize I had also received a prize in the meantime. that. In its very basis gave money to six women writers, an equal amount, and we were kind of feted in a very similar way. We were brought to New York and we were introduced to. And Editors, and so on and so forth, but we were celebrated as a group of writers with people rather being pitted against each other and some kind of competition. I want to talk about about. The Essay wrote in The New York review of books There's an excerpt that I would like you to read. That begins with the words. The empathy model of art can bleed. Me Find It. The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It's a gateway drug to White Savior, ISM, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography and paternalism. It's an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities on the page and onscreen to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized. There's a lot to unpack their. First of all like in what ways do you fear that art can lead to the what you describe as the relishing of suffering. Why I think the specific. Empathy model of art that I'm describing. Is what I feel often slips into the relishing of suffering. And this is a relatively new tradition in literature. I trace it back to. George Elliott's notion that the role of the novel is to foster sympathy for people unlike US for other people. And that's a relatively new idea. The idea that sympathy or empathy ought to be the basis upon which we conduct ourselves in a society as a basis for moral action is also relatively new. It can be traced back to. Adam Smith. So these two models I think are very prevalent in contemporary literary culture. The idea is familiar to all of us that we read books in order to take on the perspectives and feel the feelings of people who are unlike us. But this is I think hardened into a kind of. Calcified Model for how all literature should work. And because. There's an implication that the people who we ought to be empathizing with. Are Those who suffer? It means that we've set up a situation where marginalized others who suffer because of class because of race, because of gender because of sexuality, because of their ability are represented in fictions in order for people who don't suffer from those specific structures of oppression. In order to foster a kind of empathy that would somehow lead to social change. So. The fictions that are promoted the fictions that are read our all geared toward a certain kind of audience, and there seems to be only one kind of ethical role for fiction, which is to make us feel the suffering of others. And I suggest that because of this uneven hierarchy of the sufferers and the non sufferers, you essentially have a situation where only the marginalized are the producers of these kinds of vehicles for empathy for the non sufferers I say this is. A kind of grotesque dynamic. And I basically. Believe that. It's not too much of a stretch. From reading about the suffering of others to relishing it, and in fact, delighting in the fact that you yourself don't suffer from the things being depicted in those fictions. That's. A. It's hard to take in why. Well. It's something that I have thought about a lot in the work that I've done with this podcast and in my career. It's an idea that I've thought about a lot perhaps in different. Ways and you've just described it, but I am very interested in. You know I think when people read about people who are suffering and they are genuinely moved by the plight. They can think that somehow. That's enough, or they've done something or that. It's meaningful and I and I feel like part of what you were writing about. Here was your concern about that? It's like okay, so we've read the novel that made us cry. About some other. WHO's suffering. But. So, what or then what or is that actually harmful and so I'm very interested in this and I. I mean. Do you have a direct concern that arises out of kind of the argument you've just made. Yeah I think that. This is a very old. Understanding. Of Literatures Effects. We have the notion of Catharsis which means a kind of pershing or a release of emotion. and. The point of going to a Greek tragedy and watching. Noble people suffer. was in Aristotle's terms to release all of these negative emotions, the kind of sadness you feel the pity you feel the fear. You feel for other people so that you could go out and be a better citizen, so in fact earlier understandings of literature is that the whole point was to release those emotions and then do anything about it. And so I offer at the end of my essay counter model to this which is berthold, Brecht? who was against the Cathartic model and thought we have to always make people aware that what they're watching is in fact, an illusion, but actually agitates. You angers you makes you frustrated enough that in Brecht's words, you would go and start a riot in the streets. And? I think there's a lot of talk recently about. Whether we should criticise forms of literature or the writers of literature who are well meaning. In the kinds of representations that they create, and so the recent controversy around. The novel American dirt by Janine Cummings is a case in point. People say well. She means well. She's writing about this awful situation. That's happening on the US Mexico, border, but. The specific nature of the representation what it's geared toward what kind of emotions it's being asked to prompt us, and also the specific audience who is being asked to engage in this. Empathy for those who suffer all shift. How politically effective a work like that can be? This empathy model while it might be well meaning. Continues to perpetuate an imbalance in the world where there are those who suffer and those who don't suffer and have the leisure to be convinced that those who suffer should be relieved of that suffering. I think the scales just continue to be tilted in the direction of a kind of paternalistic version of Savior ISM. and to be honest I mean I didn't expect you to ask me about the splitting in the CAINE Prize, but it is related in my mind. To Philanthropic Model. whereby the British sponsors of a prize for African literature. are well meaning. And it seems like the intent behind a prize like that is to. Promote certain kinds of literature about other people. But what that has led to in fact is a kind of stereotype of the Caine prize story as a kind of poverty porn. This is something the prize had to resist greatly. As calcified into a kind of genre, this is the story about African suffering in some fashion. Maybe they're using drugs. May they're poor? Maybe they're malnourished. Maybe they have diseases and so bringing writers to London to celebrate that kind of work along a philanthropic model. It's a little bit grotesque, and I think there's a similar dynamic happening in the world of publishing which is primarily made up of white editors, publishers marketing folk. They just released a study of the demographics. They may be publishing works by. Non White writers like myself. They may be publishing works that are about non white people like Janine Commons as American dirt, but there's a kind of imbalance still in the kind of literature that's being promoted, and in what is being asked to do, and for what kind of reader and it seems to me that imagined reader is very often a comfortable middle class, white person who is not suffering and gets to. Empathize with those who do suffer through part. And now we're going to take a short break to hear more about the nonprofit quarterly. If you enjoy listening to our podcast and are looking to gain more in depth knowledge about the operating environment of the nonprofit sector, you should read the nonprofit quarterly magazine. N. P. Cues. Magazine is a trusted voice in the sector that provides research based articles and strategies to give you an advantage in navigating the nonprofit landscape. Save twenty percents off your subscription today. When you use the code, N. P. Q t Ass at nonprofit quarterly org forward slash subscribe. It. Was Interesting hearing you talk about the Caine Prize, and of course all the. Colonial history there. Of England in Africa and the irony there of course and I mean. I think I can probably say this. It's been long enough and I. The CAINE Prize is trying to change. But both of the Times. That I was shortlisted for the prize. We were put up in the Royal Overseas League. which is. Literally a colonial club. Most of its members are older white men who would come to our little reading and talk about. Their nostalgia for being in Kenya in the fifties, and so on, and so forth it was it was sort of in your face is sort of to avoid the colonial implications because they were still so rife in just the dynamics, and the logistics of how the Caine prize runs, and again it down to the money because they were willing to put us up, which is a wonderful and very generous thing, but it did perpetuate a very specific kind of dynamic. Would you go there again? If you were offered another prize by them or shortlist the prize? Now I've been asked to participate in events around the prize possibly to judge the prize and I've Said No. I did want to talk to you about another essay wrote in The New York review of books entitled Glossing Africa And it opens this way you write. Whenever African writers were on a panel together. We are asked about the continent as a whole. It's literature its future. Its political woes. Potential. And then you write whenever African writers get together on our own. We talk about glossaries and you go on to write. But when African writers talk about glossaries, we don't just exchange tips. How long how comprehensive by whom we talk about weather to include one at all whether to offer glosses within the text. Or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss or not to gloss. That is the question. I before I read, your essay had never heard of this term and I'm wondering if you could. First just tell me what is glossing. And why is it such a hot topic of discussion among African Writers? Well, I assume you know what a glossary. Do I just hadn't heard of her. Yeah so a glossary is A. Little mini. Dictionary defining certain terms within an essay or within a novel. and. The inclusion of glossaries in African literatures been a standing editorial question. But there's also to gloss which is to define essentially. To gloss a word gloss term is to offer a paraphrase or Or a translation of a term, usually from one language to another. When we're thinking about African literature I think one of the reasons, it's specific to African writers. Is Because of a question of audience. So who are you writing for? And to? Whom do you feel? You need to explain things. Can you assume a kind of cultural knowledge that white writers writers from the West have assumed for centuries, or do you want as say? Trevor Noah says to make sure to include everybody any kind of speaker of any kind of language in what you right. and. Where do you come down on this? In my novel I chose to attack. All Non English words that included Telugu words from India included. Italian words included French words and included words from various ambien languages, including Bemba John John Tonga so I decided I was going to mark the difference of these words. And level the playing field in some sense by making sure it wasn't just. Zambian words, but words that were non English in in any context. Had Fan letters and van commentary from Zambians. Who are really pleased that there are these kinds of what we call Easter eggs for Zambian readers things that only readers. From Zambia who grew up when I was growing up? Would recognize and understand. It's almost a kind of secret code. And, so in some sense I feel like the decision that I've made. Does exactly what I wanted it to? which was that it opened up? The book to people who hadn't seen themselves or the way they spoke, or their language represented in literature before. While it forced other people to examine their own assumptions about what should or should not be transparent to them on the page. We live in the world of the Internet so if you don't understand a word in a novel, it's very easy to Google. Right. It's not your job to explain it to them. No I mean I'm very interested an F. D. and I'm interested enough in the origins of a word, but other times I'm interested just in the texture of language, and how a word sounds like in Zambia instead of saying flip-flop. We say Potter Potter. I don't define what Papa is, but you can kind of figure it out from context, and it's just a lovely word, and just to give that sense of how people talk, and how people think. I've interviewed many women of color recently, especially, who many of whom have talked about their frustration with feeling that. They can't just show up as black women in a room. Or at an office Radha, gathering, and just be they have to. Be Often. Explaining things, representing larger group than just themselves, and as I've explored Whiteness for myself in recent years That's one thing I've been learning about is that it's not the job of people have colored. Educate me. That's you know that's not their bird, and and I just wonder if that if is a larger issue going on with respect to glossing around that that you as a writer, it's it's. It's my job to educate myself about words that I may not understand. That's not your job is there is any of that going on or am I misreading? Yes although I think that aligns the difference between the language in my novel and me as a person. So. Yes do. Resent having to explain that Zambia is not. Zimbabwe is not Namibia and so on and so forth when people mistake it. That is frustrating to me, but. All of my characters and even my narrators are distinct for me and so the kind of decision that I'm making for example not to gloss the Telugu words, either or even the Italian words in the novel doesn't quite correspond to that same personal resentment. That I might harbor as a black woman. I think it speaks again more to my sense of audience and to a kind of broader. Perspective which is bad. No one who reads my novel will get everything. Not even me because I'm not fluent in. Some of these languages that I sight. There's science in my novel that some people won't get. There's religious iconography that some people won't get so it's not that it's specifically addressed to my black female voice. And the duty to represent or explain as much as it is a kind of generalized understanding that we are all different, and we all come fiction with different forms of knowledge. And you're never gonNA be fully in the light, but you're not going to be completely in the dark, either, and in fact you know my thinking about this actually comes from studying under and teaching with. White male American professor, and we were teaching. T S Eliot the wasteland to some undergraduate students and. They really wanted to know what every word meant. And Eliot famously included a kind of glossary. He included footnotes in the second edition of the poem, defining some of these references and very esoteric ways. And my professor said you don't have to know what every word means in this poem. You don't have to know what every illusion is what every reference is! Some of them are personal. Some of them are literally some of them historical, but he said you know sometimes the poem can go dark, but that darkness itself as part of the experience, so it's actually that experience and that insight that I am applying when I'm thinking about glossing or not glossing words in my fiction, rather than the specific experience that you're describing which does resonate with me. Isn't exactly co extensive with my decisions as a writer, but in that essay you do right that will you say it this way? It seems that decades of explanation have not yet resulted in a global common knowledge. Of African words and ideas. That would make glossing redundant. And so. In an ideal world would glossing. Be Redundant. Because we would know enough. About in this case, you're talking particularly about African words and ideas at that we would all know enough. I think. My sense of. Common Knowledge. What is called common knowledge? Is that. It often entails culturally specific ideas and terms. From the West. So. We understand what someone means when they say June Sekwa, we understand when someone says. And? That's purely as the result of circulation of knowledge certain ideas, certain cultural tropes get transmitted. They have more weight behind them. They have more power behind them because of the inequalities of representation in art and culture. I guess what I'm suggesting is. There does seem to be still this need to gloss aspects of African culture. that. Really by now, you would think people would know. And, so you know I think ideally you have a kind of equality of reference, you have common knowledge being actually global, and and actually common rather than waited in one way or the other, now of course in an ideal world, if you take that to its logical conclusion, than it would be everybody, speaking, every language, knowing every culture, and of course, that's actually not that fun. So I wouldn't say that. What we want is a common knowledge that includes everything. But it would be nice to have a little bit more of a balance, so that African writers wouldn't have to worry about including Nigerian English words in their fiction that these would be words that people just knew because they were so common and affect that they're not common. What does that tell you? I think it comes down to. Power and capital. I don't think it's necessarily attributable simply to racism. Because for example African American. Lingo is quite widespread globally. So it's not necessarily about. Ethnicity or race or culture, but it's about power. It's about capital. It's about the sheer numbers of works by African writers from different countries. that. Circulates. Globally and are translated into other languages. Is this a novel worth translating? Is this a novel worth publishing at all is a novel worth circulating in different parts of the world. Do we have the world rights or do? We just have the US rights? So you know how far an artwork can travel? Seems to be very much dictated by capital still and by the decisions of certain people in power and publishing. Phnom. Wall Easter pell associate professor of English at the University of California Berkeley author of the novel, the old drift among many other writings. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Thank you so much. and that's tiny spark, which was produced by Freddie Boswell, Nepali, repel was recorded at her office in Berkeley California by Bijon, CFO she. If. You want to leave a comment about our podcast, please head over to tiny spark dot. Org were email us at podcast at N. P, Q dot, Org and subscribe to our podcast on any platform where you listen to podcasts, stitcher pocket casts apple podcast Google podcasts, and if you like heard today, it'd be great if you could give us a rating help. More people find out about our work, also like us on Facebook, and you can tweet me I'm at tiny spark underscore org tiny spark has a podcast the nonprofit quarterly. Thank you so much for listening I'm Amy Castelo. This program was produced by the nonprofit quarterly, which is solely responsible for its content. This podcast is made possible by a grant from the William and Flora. Hewlett Foundation.