Winning a literary award is something most authors dream about — but I can imagine that if you don't feel you won it for the right reasons, the magic just isn't there. That's why British author and comedian Shappi Khorsandi withdrew from a prize longlist that she didn't feel was right for her book, and it's a brave decision. Khorsandi's debut novel Nina Is Not OK was nominated for the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Color — but as Khorsandi's novel isn't about ethnic identity, she respectfully withdrew from the runnings. Being longlisted for this award "felt like my skin colour was up for an award rather than my book," Khorsandi wrote on Twitter, even though she says she was "massively flattered" to have been included.
The Jhalak Prize longlist was released on Thursday, and features incredible novels by British writers of color, from Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman to Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. The prize was established by writers Nikesh Shukla and Sunny Singh, and aims to honor those authors of color who are "often ignored, overlooked and erased." Both Singh and Shukla reference the "patronizing suggestions" they often hear that people of color aren't doing enough to solve the problem of diversity — and hope that this award will "inspire the publishing industry to look beyond the present narrow margins."
Massively flattered, but I have respectfully withdrawn my book from this longlist, despite the incredible company it was in. https://t.co/13SGMtfQsU— Shappi Khorsandi (@ShappiKhorsandi) January 5, 2017
Because my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity. Felt like my skin colour was up for an award rather than my book 😜 https://t.co/MQk9JzmkHW— Shappi Khorsandi (@ShappiKhorsandi) January 5, 2017
The issue of how to diversify the publishing industry has never been easy — and it's understandable that Khorsandi doesn't want to be included purely on the basis of her skin color, particularly if her novel is not actually about her ethnicity. Her response was gracious and justified — but sadly, some less-nice Twitter responses to her own comments show that there's still a long way to go when it comes to diversifying the publishing industry.
In response to Khorsandi's withdrawal, Sunny Singh told The Bookseller that "although I am disappointed, I respect her decision. The Jhalak longlist was compiled with much enthusiasm, love and respect for the extraordinary quality and range of work that was submitted. The judges believe that each of of the books on the longlist is there on literary merit and deserves as wide a readership as possible."
So if you want some fantastic books for your own reading list, check out Nina is Not OK as well as the full Jhalak longlist here. All of these books are worthy of recognition based on literary merit alone — and thanks to efforts like the Jhalak prize, we are slowly working towards a world where books like these do not have to fight for the honor they deserve.