Last chance for Commonwealth literary stardom

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 1997, 12:00am

Hurry up with that prize-winning novel. You have your last chance to enter one of the world's best competitions open to budding Hong Kong writers - but you will have to publish before July 1.

Hong Kong novelists will not be eligible to enter the Commonwealth Writers' Prize after the handover - the territory will not be in the Commonwealth.

Not that Hong Kong has done too well so far. In the 10 years the prize has been going, no one has won from the territory, although the organisers at the Commonwealth Foundation in London say they are unsure whether any local scribes have entered.

The prize is good for local writers because it is judged locally, at least in the first rounds. The famous Booker Prize is for Commonwealth writers, but they have to be published in Britain and the judges are British - hardly the stuff to encourage peculiarly Asian styles or subjects.

In contrast, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize is truly international, says project officer Diana Bailey at the foundation. 'We have a two-tier judging system. We convene regional judging panels in four regions - the Caribbean and Canada, Southeast Asia and South Pacific, Eurasia and Africa - and they may not necessarily have been published in Britain.' That encourages small publishers to take part. In some cases, particularly in Africa, regional winners have only had a few hundred copies of the book printed.

There are two categories, best book and best first book, meaning eight titles go on to a final read-off. Entries have to have been published in the previous year.

All the shortlisted titles are awarded GBP1,000 (about HK$12,500). The best book overall receives GBP10,000 and best first book, GBP3,000.

This year final judging will be in London, but the site moves around between the four regions.

To mark the 10th anniversary, a Festival of Commonwealth Literature will be held over about two weeks at the time of judging on April 29. There will be readings by previous winners such as Rohinton Mistry and David Malouf, seminars and a tour of Britain.

'The only people who have been invited from overseas were the 20 former winners. Twelve have agreed to take part,' said Ms Bailey.

One could argue there is a bias towards those entries with more of a British style. For a start, books have to be written in English. 'We've talked about it but if they were in local languages it would be impossible to judge them,' said Ms Bailey.

The two winners of the Eurasia section this year were both British and in Hong Kong's group, Southeast Asia and South Pacific, the winners were an Australian and a Western Samoan who lives in New Zealand. Bar the unknown African publishers, most are household publishing names.

The Southeast Asian and South Pacific judging panel was led by the literary editor of the New Straits Times in Malaysia, Kee Thuan Chye. The other judges were New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera and Australian academic Kateryna Longley. The group comprises Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

The Eurasian panel was led by Professor Kalser Haq of the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. Arguably the best book award in that group was rather unimaginative: it went to the Booker pass-over, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge, published by Gerald Duckworth.

Best first book went to Interesting Facts about the State of Arizona by Jeremy Poolman (Faber).

In Hong Kong's region, the best book prize was awarded to Leaning Towards Infinity, by Australian Sue Woolfe (Random House). It is, according to the blurb, 'an exploration of familial relationships and concerns arising from the central premise of a woman's quest to complete her mother's mathematical discovery'. Woolfe is, in fact, scientifically trained.

Mr Kee said: 'That's not all there is to the book' - in case you were thinking that wasn't enough. 'The judges were impressed by its deep understanding of the emotional and intellectual lives of its main characters, and by the author's daring use of a variety of narrative techniques.' Best first book went to Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel and published by a small house, Pasifika Press. It uses a traditional Samoan storytelling form as it looks at a Samoan girl coming of age and searching for her identity, while supposedly de-romanticising the South Pacific.

'The judges found it an exciting and uncommon piece of work,' said Mr Kee.

The African section is perhaps the most interesting because it is least known. Best book went to Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera of Zimbabwe, published by Baobab Books, and best first book went to At the Edge by Ronnie Govender of South Africa.

Get those books in now, Hong Kong scribblers, before July 1 sweeps away the chance.

They must have been published in Hong Kong or printed by companies registered in the territory for the first time last year. Forms can be obtained from public libraries and returned with a copy of the book by April 30.