In March 2017 the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, worth £1000, was awarded to Jacob Ross for the crime fiction novel The Bone Readers. According to its website, the Jhalak Prize was set up ‘to support and celebrate writers of colour in Britain’ in recognition that a ‘vastness of talent, ambition and creative vigour’ is ‘often overlooked by an industry that has yet to decolonize its gaze’.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission responded by making the unusual move — or so it seemed — of issuing a caution to the organisers of the Jhalak Prize for circulating potentially discriminatory promotional materials. The action followed a complaint by the Conservative MP Philip Davis alleging that the prize discriminated against white writers.
You can read organiser Sunny Singh’s account of the controversy here and responses displayed on the websites of both parties below:
This was not the first time a literary prize had come under fire for attempting to deal with the effects of what Claire Squires has called publishing’s ‘diversity deficit‘. Back in the late 1980s the Arts Council of Great Britain successfully fought a landmark legal case defending its right to target writers of African, Asian or Caribbean heritage for an annual bursary competition. Targeting specific groups, the Arts Council argued, was an important way of addressing the ‘special needs’ of writers unequally represented in the literary world. Their line of argument relied on an untested exemption clause of the 1976 Race Relations Act designed to cater for those occasions in which certain kinds of discriminations actually advanced the cause of equality.
Special needs of racial groups in regard to education, training or welfare
Nothing in Parts II to IV shall render unlawful any act done in affording persons of a particular racial group access to facilities or services to meet the special needs of persons of that group in regard to their education, training or welfare, or any ancillary benefits.Section 35, 1976 Race Relations Act c. 74
The 1989 court case involving the Arts Council and a complainant, the poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley, garnered a surprising range of figures, from Margaret Busby to Margaret Drabble, to testify on the difficulties black writers faced in modern Britain (see Chapter 3).
The issue of targeted prizes and literary opportunities also resurfaced in 2007 when a group promoting ‘English heritage, culture and tradition’ urged the Commission for Racial Equality to intervene over decibel Penguin Prize: a cultural diversity initiative piloted by Penguin Books and the Arts Council. The decibel Penguin Prize invited applications from first-time writers who were UK residents from African, Asian, or Caribbean backgrounds for its first anthology Volume 1: New Voices from a Diverse Culture (2006).
Unfortunately for the organizers, these conditions breached the regulations on advertising with an intention to discriminate contained in the Race Relations Act. The threat of legal action was sufficient to force a recalibration of the rules governing the prize the following year. (Unsurprisingly, the Arts Council maintained that this was ‘an area of the law open to interpretation‘).
Nevertheless, the next year took a thematic, rather than strictly biographical, approach, inviting accounts of immigration from writers of any background. The turn toward life writing was reflected in the published volumes From There to Here: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain (2007) and The map of me: true tales of mixed-heritage experience, which invited entries based on first-hand experience or that ‘of someone you know’.
These literary controversies, though seemingly local to the UK’s evolving relationship to race and ethnicity, acquire a different meaning in light of its often tricky relationship with UNESCO, the international cultural body founded in London in 1945. The 2005 UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions offered ratifying states a strong basis for precisely the kind of intervention the Jhalak Prize sought to make. Article 8 was one such protection:
Measures to protect cultural expressions
1 Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 5 and 6, a Party may determine the existence of special situations where cultural expressions on its territory are at risk of extinction, under serious threat, or otherwise in need of urgent safeguarding.
2 Parties may take all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions in situations referred to in paragraph 1 in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Convention.Article 8 (1 & 2) of the 2005 UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
The UK government, however, was relatively lukewarm about the Cultural Diversity Convention (and to a certain extent, UNESCO itself), insisting that that the Convention’s principles were already embedded in law.
Arguably, the very existence of the Jhalak Prize controversy suggested otherwise. The 2017 controversy not only pointed to the cracks in British anti-discrimination law, but to the wider ramifications in and for literary culture. As the Black Writers’ Guild pointed out in an open letter to publishers in June 2020, Britain’s overwhelmingly white-dominated industry had a long way to go in seriously addressing its own structural biases.