In the last week we have been talking again about prizes. I am new here at Commonwealth Writers, so my colleagues explained to me the context in which a decision was made to end the prize long awarded to books published by writers from the Commonwealth and start instead a prize for unpublished short stories from around the Commonwealth.
I listened and found myself thinking back to my interview for this job. On a bad Skype connection between London and Colombo they asked me, “and how do you feel about working for the Commonwealth?” I paused.
What’s the connection? They keep coming up – these questions of establishment. What is our relationship to the greater world orders – the ones that came before, the ones we are in now, the ones we might hope for? Are we doing enough to make the transitions from one to another? And, I would add, do we have a sense of humour about history? Do we remember how small we are, in it?
How do I feel about the Commonwealth? I’m too implicated in its history to know, exactly. This is not to make excuses but exactly the opposite. It is to have learnt to feel comfortable in the moral low ground – working things out as we go along. When I say humour, I also mean humility.
I had not, until yesterday, really thought about these questions in relation to the Commonwealth Writers’ prizes. When I noted the change I had merely thought it seemed sensible to me, given the way that history has accumulated in recent decades. In very good faith, we in the writing industries have set up a great many prizes to celebrate writing. What a wonderful and unlikely thing.
But I would argue this is exactly the moment to think again about the hundreds of thousands of writers still outside the room. And to ask what exactly is so great about the room, itself? Are the palaces of literary power imitations of the other kind? Are we – in the tiniest way – replaying the inequalities of the world?
So we try things again, differently. This is not to scorn what has come before – why must an end be a condemnation? Humility and change are especially required of the establishment. This was the point that my colleague made to me yesterday – “it is not that it was a bad prize but that we should no longer be the ones handing it out”.
That is the thing about history – we only know how it has accumulated once it has. Let’s see.
Commonwealth Writers, Sunila Galappatti