Sunny Singh is the Chairperson at the Authors’ Club and a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the London Metropolitan University. Her debut novel Nani’s Book of Suicides won the Mar De Letras Prize in Spain, and her latest novels, the critically acclaimed Hotel Arcadia and Amitabh Bachchan, showcase the author’s mastery across genres.
SheThePeople.TV converses with the author about the Jhalak Prize, her work for inclusion in publishing and the often untapped plethora of narratives from British BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers.
Sunny Singh was born and raised initially in India, going on to live in various places in the Americas, Europe and Africa. Moving around helped her understand the range of ways in which privilege and exclusion operate. On the surface, Sunny saw things to be quite varied, but found the underlying dynamics of power, exclusion and injustice to remain quite similar. “I have experienced being part of that privileged elite, although my gender places me as power adjacent rather than powerful even in India,” shares the author, “At the same time, I have also experienced various levels of exclusion, marginalisation and oppression as a woman of colour living in western countries.”
Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified founded the Jhalak Prize, in 2016, to celebrate British BAME writers. The prize itself is named for Sunny’s grandmother, Jhalak, who firmly believed that “not only could we make our world better, but that it was our right and responsibility to do so when faced with injustice.” The author describes the prize being set up as serendipitous – it brought together lots of people with similar goals and beliefs. “It is truly a prize for and of the community,” remarks the author.
The prize itself is named for Sunny’s grandmother, Jhalak, who firmly believed that “not only could we make our world better, but that it was our right and responsibility to do so when faced with injustice.”
The Jhalak Prize had been in the making for about 5 years when the Writing The Future Report landed in 2015. In this report, Danuta Kean noted that a BAME writer had the best shot at being published only when they wrote stories conforming to the stereotypical views of their communities. For Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified, this document put the numbers out there in all their starkness. 56.26% of publishers and 51.35% of literary agents in the UK found published books to not be diverse at all. The Authors’ Club, with its significant literary legacy, supported the prize, and an anonymous benefactor brought in an additional stroke of luck with an agreement to donate the prize money. The rest is history.
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The jury of the Jhalak Prize reflects the ethos of the award. Founded to celebrate the extraordinary depth, range, quality and brilliance of literature produced by writers of colour in Britain, the jury of the Jhalak Prize too is composed of talented and qualified writers. Sunny Singh, Catherine Johnson, Tanya Byrne, Vera Chok and Noo Saro-Wiwa bring diverse backgrounds and strong literary voices to their positions as writers and judges.
Even an award such as the Jhalak Prize, which seeks out the best books by British BAME writers – who are underrepresented and stereotyped in Publishing – across genres, wasn’t impervious to criticism. Philip Davies, a member of the UK Parliament, complained to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission about the prize. Sunny Singh called this as “a case of a powerful man weaponising elements of the state against citizens facing and resisting injustice,” and notes this as a particularly petty attempt to shut down the prize. Support came in the form of an incredible community of like-minded people who loved books, and together, they pushed back with the support of lawyer Kiran Daurka. Ironically, it was the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that vindicated the Jhalak Prize by making it clear that the prize is “the type of action which the Commission supports and recommends.”
“A culture of exclusion exists and it does not matter that it is unconscious and institutional rather than a result of conscious individual moral failings.” -Sunny Singh
A Culture of Exclusion
Singh maintains that “a culture of exclusion exists and it does not matter that it is unconscious and institutional rather than a result of conscious individual moral failings.” The Writing the Future report and a follow up in 2016 by The Bookseller present clear and stark figures demonstrating that writers of colour are systematically excluded from publishing contracts, and that fewer receive literary representation from agents (which can often be essential to getting published well). Figures demonstrate that writers of colour are barely visible – only 4 % – at literary festivals, panels and juries of literary prizes (this has been slowly shifting). The author finds it to be “infuriatingly unremarkable to see all white long and short lists for literary prizes.” A minuscule number of writers of colour are reviewed by major outlets and even fewer are published as reviewers by the same outlets. Sunny has often walked past a major bookshop in central London and not seen a single writer of colour in their window or their main tables.
“All of this has a direct cost,” explains Sunny Singh, “in terms of visibility, sales, literary credibility, reputation, income from writing, consideration for literary prizes, and more. And this is on top of the daily emotional, psychological and yes, physical toll of exclusion.” There is a kind of daily, ongoing, and very heavy race tax people of colour are made to pay for living in Britain. “Frankly it is a miracle and testament to the resilience and strength of creatives of colour that we continue to strive for and achieve our creative vision,” expresses the author.
“Frankly it is a miracle and testament to the resilience and strength of creatives of colour that we continue to strive for and achieve our creative vision”
Inclusivity, diversity and representation changing from tokenism to the norm in the near future of publishing
Sunny thinks that “this is an extended fight.” Acceptance of the occasional hit or success won’t be enough. She sees the need to not only open the doors but to hold them open for everyone else who follows, and to nurture them until they are able to follow through those doors. “The only way beyond tokenism is to have a conscious, deliberate, collective action where we can support each other, especially the youngest, most vulnerable, most marginalised amongst us,” declares the author.
The Jhalak Prize was started with the hopes of ending racial stereotyping and the lack of diversity in literature in the UK, and Sunny Singh wants to see the award rendered completely unnecessary in the foreseeable future. Jacob Ross was awarded the 2016 Jhalak Prize for The Bone Readers and Reni Eddo-Lodge was awarded the 2017 Jhalak Prize for Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. “If the prize helps showcase this brilliance, pushes people to buy more books, for prizes to invite writers of colour to their juries, to include writers of colour on their shortlists, to review us, stock us in libraries and bookshops, to read us not just as ‘insight into foreign culture’ but as great writing, then the prize will have achieved its objective,” believes the author.
Jhalak Prize shortlists have been incredibly diverse not just in themes, backgrounds, genres and forms, but also in terms of age and experience. Singh describes Jhalak Prize-winning authors as “the torchbearers to the future.” Debut novelists and poets too have featured on the longlists alongside some of the biggest names in literature. The prize draws connections between those who have walked the path and those who are just starting out.
I am very clear that if the Jhalak Prize or any of my initiatives do not stretch my own boundaries of comfort, then I am being exclusionary.
“I hope my experience gives me a deeper understanding of oppression as well as makes me aware of the pitfalls that often come with struggles for inclusion. I am very clear that if the Jhalak Prize or any of my initiatives do not stretch my own boundaries of comfort, then I am being exclusionary. I am very aware that I need to constantly challenge my own internalised preconceptions even as I fight against exclusion in the world beyond,” concludes the author.
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Feature Image Credit: Sunny Singh, Media Diversified UK