People complain again about the number of British and the number of Americans short-listed for the Booker Prize, so the chair of judges, Maya Jasanoff, argues:
I find it pretty remarkable within the 21st century that people are talking about the former British empire as an appropriate container within which to think about literature.
And this does seem reasonable: – but one asks: what has changed?
Certainly the prize used to be defined on a territorial basis, as being open to Britain, the Commonwealth, plus Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe (though I don’t think anybody really thought of it as an imperial prize / the point just seemed to be to exclude the Americans). But if it was meant to be the former British empire, why wouldn’t America be included? Weren’t they in fact the only country we were missing, and isn’t the prize now precisely the former countries of the British Empire?
Technically, of course, the United States wasn’t added to the Prize at all: – the prize was merely extended to include all literature written in English. But it is not coincidental that the countries of the world which write in English happen also to be those which used to be part of the British Empire. By specifying “written in English”, the Booker Prize defines itself as the prize of the former British empire.
I am intrigued (but not enough to look it up): has any author been nominated for the Booker Prize who comes from a country outside the former British Empire? – It is theoretically possible now. – But if it happened, it would only demonstrate the continued colonialism of the language.
(Technically writers from Mozambique, which was never part of the British Empire, have been eligible for the Booker Prize since 1995 – and of course, even with the rules changes, continue to be today. The only writer I know from Mozambique is Mia Couto – but for some reason he writes in Portuguese).