Forward prize, backward reading: who grumbles if white writers win awards?

A Private Eye column has taken issue with the award going to a writer of colour again – as if it’s inconceivable that talent alone could have got them there

Yesterday an article appeared on the internet. I hoped it was a joke; I even double-checked the name to see if it was a clever anagram (it wasn’t). I wanted to find the hidden irony, enjoy a belly laugh at a piece of clever parody. But sadly, this was not the case.

The Forward prize is one of the highlights on the poets’ calendar and this year, the award was judged by a panel chaired by poet Malika Booker. The winners of the three prizes were all women, Vahni Capildeo, Tiphanie Yanique and Sasha Dugdale. In the aforementioned unironic column, Private Eye made a link between the gender and race of Booker, Capildeo and Yanique.

“Recurrent disbelief! You couldn’t make it up,” the writer pompously cried, noting that having a judge that was simultaneously a woman, a poet and of Caribbean parentage was an “unusual” and “unwise” choice. It was snidely suggested that because the three winners were women, and two were from the Caribbean, that their success was “not entirely a surprise, though still rather gobsmacking”, because of gendered and racial nepotism on Booker’s part. That Yanique and Booker share a publisher – Peepal Tree Press, publisher of trailblazers such as Kwame Dawes, Dorothea Smartt, Chris Abani – was another reason to doubt the panel’s choices.

Private Eye apparently gobsmacked that prize winners can be women...

— J Courtenay Grimwood (@JonCG) September 28, 2016

Let’s be perfectly clear: what Private Eye argues is that people of colour don’t get to win by sheer hard work and talent. That POC should be grateful for the revolving door of tokenism – one in, one out – and when multiple POC are on the same award list at the same time, it is the product of a positive action conspiracy. This isn’t the first time they’ve voiced this idea; when Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot prize this year, Private Eye leapt on that achievement too, musing that she won because she was young and attractive (or “extra-poetic reasons … as a successful and very ‘presentable’ young woman”).

It worries me that in this post-EU referendum climate, when hate crime is rising and newspapers are filled with intolerance and fear-mongering, a writer among us found time and energy to see a conspiracy in there being more than one POC in a room of poets and artists. Why did yet another piss-weak jibe at the success of black people go to print?

In 2015, Claudia Rankine won the Forward prize. In 2014, it was Kei Miller. So with Capildeo, that is three POC winners in a row. Should there have been a white winner in between somewhere? Without new faces, new stories and new blood in poetry, we’re lost, holding to dog-eared copies of Birthday Letters like rafts adrift at sea, clinging on to ideas of what poetry once was instead of celebrating what it is now.

As a poet and a woman of colour, it seems that even by writing this, I could be accused of nepotism like Booker. I don’t know any of the winning poets and I’ve never been published by Peepal Tree. But I celebrate when I see the likes of Booker on judging panels and I felt proud of all three winners. Why? Because maybe every time a new poet breaks through, a crack of light shines on the rest of our efforts. But think about this: would anyone ever make note of three white winners in a row? Would we grumble at a white judge awarding a prize to a white author?

On a positive and much brighter note, just last week we saw the publication of The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. Crowdfunded in record time, the book is a collection of 21 essays by BAME writers and artists on what it means to “tick other” in 21st-century Britain. It is in the top 10 on various bestseller lists already. This week, Robyn Travis – according to some reports the only black British debut novelist published this year – launched his book Mama Can’t Raise No Man to a sellout audience at Hackney Empire. Both of these exciting publishing events are part of fresh efforts to enlighten the likes of people who remark on others’ differences before their merit – people like, say, an anonymous writer at Private Eye.

Salena Godden

The GuardianTramp

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