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The Man Booker Prize: should we worry about diversity in literary prizes?

The Man Booker Prize started in 1969. It is a literary prize open to citizens of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the Republic of Ireland. Since 2005, The Man Booker Prize opened up an international category that would include works from around the world published in English.

The United Kingdom consists of Britain, Scotland, and Wales. The Commonwealth today consists of a much larger number of countries:

Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, Ghana, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, Vanuatu, and Zambia. (There are also several countries who have left the Commonwealth. This is the most recent list).

That is a total of 53 states. The official language of the Commonwealth is English. Some countries have multiple official languages, although English is often a common language amongst these countries. The estimated population of the Commonwealth is 2.328 billion according to Wikipedia. Approximately 63 million of those people are from the United Kingdom. That leaves over two billion people outside of the UK. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada were populated predominately by the UK. Other countries had smaller amounts of white Western influence and immigration.

Now, I know I am making some assumptions about the nationalities of people from these countries and the diversity of race found in each, but even regardless of that, these numbers don’t seem right. If there are over two billion people in the Commonwealth and only 63 million from the UK, how many times do you think someone from a predominately non-white country has won The Man Booker Prize? The answer is eight: 1971, 1974, 1983, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2006, and 2008. Three from India, three from South Africa (J.M. Coetzee won twice, and Nadine Gordimer is also of white ancestry), one from Nigeria, and one from Trinidad and Tobago. These poor numbers could suggest that maybe people in these countries just don’t write books, although we all know that is false.

Since the year 2000, only five women have won the prize (Hilary Mantel won twice). Out of these five women, there was only one woman of colour, Kiran Desai. She won with her work The Inheritance of Loss in 2006.

How can these numbers be right? How is possible to have such an imbalance? I refuse to believe it is because people throughout South East Asia, Asia, or Africa cannot write good books. That they cannot write books worthy of an award. It just doesn’t make sense. The numbers don’t add up. And you don’t need to be a mathematician to know that.

So what can be done? It’s not an easy question to answer. I propose that The Man Booker Prize selection committee and judges diversify their scope of authors. They need to change where they look for novels and change their selection process. I refuse to believe that since 1969 there have only been five non-white authors worthy of The Man Booker Prize.

What do you think about diversity in The Man Booker Prize? Are you shocked by these numbers? What would you change? Remember to share the reading love.

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  1. Pingback: My Pick for the Manbooker Prize of 2015 | bound2books