Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Prize Season (Republic of Consciousness, Whitings, Jhalaks, & Windham Campbell)

I've titled this post "Prize Season," but when it comes to literary awards in the US and UK, I should be more precise in noting that various honors now appear in a steadily rolling tide from January through December. Since they now tend not to go to the same author or presses, unless there's a consensus book or candidate whom the zeitgeist homes in on, this unfurling calendar is a good thing, especially for writers and independent publishers who tend to remain under the radar.

One such award is the UK-based Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, founded by writer and publisher Neil Griffiths and now in its second season. Griffiths established the prize to highlight innovative fiction by independent publishers, and more specifically as the prize's name indicates, to reward work that delves deeply into the consciousness of its characters, the worlds it creates. So far he and his jury have managed to do that, generating considerable excitement about British and Irish small press novels and collections of short stories. The Republic of Consciousness Prize proceeds from a fall longlist to a shortlist, and then names a winner early the next year. This year, the shortlist comprised the following six books:

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)
Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, tr. Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives)
We that are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)
Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press)
Darker with the Lights on by David Hayden (Little Island Press)

As tally shows, the prize also encompasses works in translation, a rarity among most prize competitions that are not specifically so designated. This year's winner was Influx Press, which published British writer Eley Williams' highly praised Attrib. and other stories. Williams' book has received extensive praise for its playfulness and profundity. Congratulations to the press and Williams, and I highly recommend her collection! (I should add that last year, my British publisher, Fitzcarraldo received the award for Counternarratives, a turn of events I still find astonishing; though I've met Jacques Testard, the founder and head of Fitzcarraldo, I do hope one of these days to return to the UK and participate in a reading over there.)


Another set of honors that graces the first quarter of each year are the Whiting Awards, awarded by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation in New York. Since 1985, the Whitings have been given annual to ten emerging writers of promise, who are secretly nominated by figures in the literary and publishing world, and then selected by the foundation. This year's winners include some of the brightest new lights in contemporary American poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama:

  • poet and essayist Anne Boyer
  • fiction writer Patti Yumi Cottrell
  • playwright Nathan Alan Davis
  • playwright and director Hansol Jung
  • poet Rickey Laurentiis
  • playwright Antoinette Nwandu
  • poet Tommy Pico
  • author, dancer, performance artist, and musician Brontez Purnell
  • novelist Esmé Weijun Wang
  • fiction writer and public health scholar Weike Wang

2018 Whiting Award winners
Congratulations to all these writers and artists, and you can learn more about them and find links to their books at the Whiting site, linked above!


2017 Jhalak Prize shortlisted titles
Several years ago, authors Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla, working with the organization Media Diversified, and with the support of the Authors' Club and an anonymous donor, established the Jhalak Prize to honor outstanding writing by writers of color, or in British terminology, British and British-resident BAME (Black, Asian and Middle Eastern) writers. This is the only prize of its sort presented in Great Britain. The jury selects a longlist, shortlist, and then one winner, who receives a £1000 ($1413) prize. Like the Republic of Consciousness Prize, this was the Jhalak Prize's second iteration; last year, Jacob Ross received the inaugural prize for The Bone Readers (Peepal Tree Press), a crime thriller set in the Caribbean.

This year, on March 15, author Reni Eddo-Lodge received the 2017 Jhalak Prize for her collection of essays Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury Circus). The Guardian described Eddo-Lodge's process of writing the book, which began with...a blog post!

Eddo-Lodge’s collection of essays began as a blogpost of the same title in 2014. Opening with her statement: “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race,” Eddo-Lodge wrote she could “no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals like they can no longer hear us.”

After the blog went viral, Eddo-Lodge spent five years writing the book about “not just the explicit side, but also the slippery side of racism – the bits that are hard to define, and the bits that make you doubt yourself”. Britain, she wrote, “is still profoundly uncomfortable with race and difference”.

Other writers on the shortlist include

  • Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend (Faber)
  • Kayo Chingonyi, Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus) 
  • Xiaolu Guo, Once Upon a Time in the East (Chatto & Windus)
  • Meena Kandasamy, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Atlantic Books)
  • Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything (Chicken House)

Congratulations to Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose book I'm looking forward to reading, and to all of this year's Jhalak Prize-listed authors and titles!


Last but not least, I recently learned that I was among the newest cohort of recipients of this year's Windham Campbell Prizes, administered by the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Like the Whiting Awards, recipients cannot apply for these awards; a committee selects prize recipients from a set of nominees.

This year's recipients also include:

  • Sarah Bakewell, a nonfiction writer from the UK;
  • Lorna Goodison, a poet from Jamaica and Canada (who taught for many years in the US);
  • Lucas Hnath, a playwright and actor from the US;
  • Cathy Park Hong, a poet, essayist and my new Rutgers-Newark colleague, from the US;
  • Olivia Laing, a nonfiction writer from the UK;
  • Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a fiction writer from Uganda and the UK; and
  • Suzan-Lori Parks, one of the major living US playwrights.

The prize committee calls out of the blue, so this award was even more of a surprise than usual. Additionally, for each recipient, they write a citation; mine, which was awarded for Fiction, reads, "With coruscating imagination, language and thought, John Keene experiments with concealed scenes from history and literature, stepping outside the confines of conventional narrative." That's about as fine and concise a summation of nearly all my work as anyone might devise.

Congratulations to all of my fellow Windham Campbell Prize recipients, many thanks to the nominators, prize committee, and foundation! There will be a series of events, including a prize ceremony, this upcoming September, so I will be sure to post more then.

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