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The SI Leeds Literary Prize is a national, biennial award for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women resident in the UK. Last night I went a celebration of the 2014 Prize at the South Bank as part of the London Literature Festival, compered by Bernardine Evaristo, a patron of the Leeds Prize and former Commonwealth Short Story Prize chair. As to the need for such prizes, Bernardine has no doubts. She believes that Black and Asian women still face discrimination when it comes to getting their books published; the brief period when ‘multicultural’ writing was in fashion with books such as White Teeth (2001) and Small Island (2004) is now over.
The first part of the evening featured readings from the six shortlisted writers – Farah Ahamed, Season Butler, Kit de Waal, Reshma Ruia, Anita Sivakumaran and Masuda Snaith. From politics in India, to making up the names of constellations, to capturing the essence of the ocean, each writer had a distinctive voice. The winner will be announced on 15 October at the Ilkley Literature Festival in Yorkshire, UK.
The readings were followed by conversation between Bernardine and winner of the first SI Leeds Literary Prize, Minoli Salgado, for her manuscript A Little Dust on the Eyes. Their discussion centred around Minoli’s interest in telling the story of a particular period in Sri Lanka, between 1987 and 1991, during violent campaigns and counter-campaigns by the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, or JVP) and government forces. Minoli talked of the thousands of people who disappeared then, across the country: to this day no one knows exactly how many, she said, and people rarely speak of that time.
Minoli was interested in the silences, both from censorship and self-censorship: ‘so much was happening, and so little was being said.’ She wanted to write about the villages which had been emptied of men and boys, leaving households of women. She wanted to give these women a voice through her story, to reflect on how they might respond.
To Minoli her novel is part of uncovering such hidden histories. When language broke down, euphemisms and clichés came into play; violence became naturalised, domesticated. She is interested in the ethics of how we bear witness to such events. Readers are witnesses as well. What is our responsibility?
A Little Dust on the Eyes is published by Peepal Tree Press, also publishers of the Pepperpot anthology of selected Caribbean entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Emma D’Costa, Commonwealth Writers
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