London, Nov. 22: The author Hari Kunzru today defended his decision to turn down a prestigious £5,000 literary prize sponsored by a British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, which he has accused of championing racist policies.
Kunzru's justification, published today in The Guardian, carries a provocative headline for which the author probably was not responsible: “Why I refused a literary award sponsored by the xenophobic Mail on Sunday.” The John Llewellyn Prize, which counts V S Naipaul among its previous winners, is given to young writers and this year the judges picked Kunzru for The Impressionist.
The allegation of racism baffled the editor of the Mail on Sunday, Peter Wright, who invited Kunzru to write an article in his paper, pointing out “precisely which Mail on Sunday article he finds so offensive. He has regrettably not so far taken up our offer.”
Tomorrow's Mail on Sunday will carry an 800 word response to Kunzru.
Wright told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview today that three judges, including the well known author, Nina Bawden, had picked the winner. "We merely supply the prize money. This is a good prize to encourage authors under 35," said the editor. Though Wright would not say so himself, among senior Mail on Sunday executives, there is a belief that "Kunzru has pulled a stunt to sell more copies of his book which is not selling so well".
The Mail on Sunday had not carried that many stories on refugees or asylum seekers, said Wright. It may be that Kunzru's comments apply more to daily newspapers, notably The Sun and perhaps to lesser extent, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday's sister paper in the Associated Newspapers Group.
Kunzru, who was born in London in 1968, educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and is of Kashmiri origin on his father's side, has asked the Mail on Sunday to donate his prize money to the Refugee Council which the paper has agreed to do.
His father, a doctor, came to Britain from Agra in the mid-1960s and met his English wife at the London Hospital, where she was working as a midwife. Kunzru won the 1999 Observer Young Travel Writer of the Year award and his
debut novel, The Impressionist, has picked up the Pound8,000 Betty Trask Prize. The Impressionist is the tale of a mixed race man's journey from India to rightwing Oxford of the 1930s.
He is currently finishing his second novel, Transmission.
His article today begins: "I'm writing this in a small town in south India, and being so far away from London literary gossip, I have been relatively insulated from the reaction to my decision to turn down the John Llewellyn Rhys
Prize. I chose to do so — and to do so publicly — because otherwise I would have felt like a hypocrite. I understand that some of the judges are angry at the use of the prize luncheon as a political platform. To them I can only apologise and say that sometimes questions of literary value are inseparable from politics. The presence of the Mail on Sunday as sponsor of the prize made this such a moment."
He goes on: "I was, like any young novelist, honoured that a jury had chosen to shortlist my first published work. But if one is to take a book prize seriously, one has to ask about its function.
For a sponsor, it is a way of linking its product to the actual or supposed cultural value of literary activity. By accepting, I would have been giving legitimacy to a publication that has, over many years, shown itself to be extremely xenophobic - an absurdity for a novelist of mixed race who is supposedly being honoured for a book about the stupidity of racial classifications and the seedy underside of empire.
He continues: "One of the ugliest developments in recent British political life has been the emergence of the "asylum seeker" as a bogeyman for middle England. I have spent some years feeling depressed about the extraordinary media hostility towards refugees, those claiming asylum and those (oh most horrific!) "economic migrants" whose crime it is to sneak into a rich country looking for a better quality of life."
"This point of view does, of course, sell papers. There is a sector of the British public more than willing to buy tall tales of scrounging, criminality, disease and vice. The Mail has always been quick to cash in on prejudice, and its cynical promotion of ignorance over tolerance has always made me angry. The Mail's campaign to persuade its readers that they live in dangerous times, that the white cliffs of Dover are about to be "swamped" or "overrun" by swan-eating Kosovans or HIV positive central Africans would, in isolation, be merely amusing. However, the attitudes it promotes towards immigrants have real consequences. Bricks through windows. Knives in guts."
Kunzru explains his own position: "My politics start from a different perspective. Britain is a wealthy country, and a safe country. We also have a reputation as a fair country, a reputation earned, paradoxically, by generations of hard-working imperial administrators who believed in the old-fashioned public school values that the Mail pretends to uphold. We have a duty of care for refugees, and it is distasteful to watch our politicians doing their best to shirk it, in order to persuade voters that their rose-trellised cottages are safe from the dark hordes across the Channel.
I want my work to help reduce prejudice, not reinforce it. Accepting this prize would, sadly, have been a betrayal of that principle. Instead, I have been afforded an opportunity to put a different case. For that I am grateful, as I am to my agent, Jonny Geller, who bravely delivered my statement to what I can only imagine was an icy reception at the Reform Club."
Kunzru is not the first author of Indian origin to have turned down a prize. In July, 2001, Amitabh Ghosh withdrew his book, The Glass Palace, from the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
In a letter to the Commonwealth Foundation, he wrote: "I have on many occasions publicly stated my objections to the classification of books such as mine under the term 'Commonwealth Literature'. Principal among these is that this phrase anchors an area of contemporary writing not within the realities of the present day, nor within the possibilities of the future, but rather within a disputed aspect of the past. As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that 'the Commonwealth' can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games)."