What does this year’s double Booker win mean for south Asian literature?
With Sri Lanka’s Shehan Karunatilaka and India’s Geetanjali Shree taking home two of publishing’s biggest prizes, what next for one of the world’s most overlooked literary regions?
Why isn’t more south Asian fiction published outside the subcontinent? And is the tide now turning? As this year has shown, it’s prizeworthy stuff. In October, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida took home the 2022 Booker prize, with Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and her translator Daisy Rockwell winning the International Booker prize for Tomb of Sand. The latter novel, which has also recently joint-won the Warwick prize for women in translation, was translated from Hindi, and was the first south Asian book to be awarded the £50,000 translation prize. For south Asian writers to win both Bookers in the same year was unexpected indeed.
Of course, as Rockwell says, such patterns in prizes are “sometimes flukes”, and it is not as if recognition of south Asian writers has sprung from nowhere. Last year, for example, Sri Lankan Anuk Arudpragasam was shortlisted for the Booker with A Passage North. But Manasi Subramaniam, the editor and publisher of the Indian editions of Karunatilaka’s and Shree’s books, thinks what is happening now is something bigger, “a reframing of the global south in the wider literary narrative”. She clarifies that several changes over the last few decades – “diasporic writing, brave independent publishers, a steady shifting of the gaze, translators who have quietly chipped away at excavation projects to expand our collective oeuvre” – have contributed to the current moment. Still, the work is slow, and often the weight rests on the shoulders of individuals and small presses.