Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Jhalak Prize 2018


By Catriona Troth

It has once again been my complete pleasure to read all six of the books from the Jhalak Prize shortlist (and as many as I could from the longlist). 

As I read through the list, I kept thinking I had found the book that could not possibly be beaten – only to find another equally as powerful. So many of these books punched me in the gut, I cannot imagine how the judges (Sunny Singh, Catherine Johnson, Tanya Byrne, Vera Chok and Noo Saro-Wiwa) are going to pick an eventual winner. Whoever it is, they will deserve all possible plaudits.

The winner will be announced on Thursday 15th but on the eve on the announcement, here is my review of this year’s amazing nominees.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

In a series of eloquently argued chapters, Eddo-Lodge addresses (among other things) the erasure of Black Britons from British history, the nature of White Privilege, the failure of White Feminism to engage with issues of racism, the often overlooked intersections of race with class – and what white people should be doing to tackle racism.

I want to put this book into the hands of every good-hearted, liberal-minded white person I know and say, ‘please read this; please try and understand. We are all complicit, but we don’t have to be.’

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

When I Hit You, Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

A fictionalised account of domestic violence and rape within a marriage, told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

Victims of abuse are often confronted with the question, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Kandasamy takes you so deep inside her narrator’s head you are forced to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

The Island At the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

There are some places you would not want to go. Even if I told you that we have oceans filled with sea turtles and dolphins, or forests lush with parrots that call through air thick with warmth. Nobody comes here because they want to. The island of no return.

From 1906 to 1998, Culion became with world’s biggest leper colony. In the early part of the 20th C, thousands of those touched by the disease were forcibly transported to the island, their healthy children taken from them by government authorities to avoid further contamination. This is a story of cruelty promulgated by arrogant authorities believing they know best and failing utterly to see the subjects of their experiments as whole people. A story of love and trust, hope and reconciliation, told in language that is both simple and utterly poetic.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam’s novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Once Upon a Time in the East by Xialou Guo

A memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Kumakanda by Kayo Chingonyi

The title of Kayo Chingonyi’s debut book of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man. As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. His poems address casual racism, colonialism, the reduction of Africa to the single image of a dying child. A whole group of poems deal with the loss, at a young age, of both his father and his mother.

These are poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary. Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse


And also from the shortlist:

 We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

A darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy. The second test is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

 Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari

Two very different young girls, both facing massive life changes, are eased into their new Secondary School by the wonderful Grace Nuala and her messy colourful art house. Written in clear, simple English and beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray, this would suit young readers struggling with anxiety or those learning about refugees. But equally, it would be an excellent book for slightly older children learning English as an additional language. Worry Angels is full of warmth and empathy and above all, hope.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

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