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PART OF THE Sanctuary ISSUE

‘The Kavya Prize will empower them to raise their voices, tell their stories and reach a wider audience.’

Leela Soma is a writer based in Glasgow. Here she gives us the story behind the formation of the Kavya Prize.

 

The new Kavya Prize, which I established this year for Scottish writers of colour working in all genres, started as a small idea that was partly conceived through inspiration, but also by a need to carve out a space for writers of colour to capture their stories on paper for future generations. Scottish literature and arguably Scottish culture have always been seen as somewhat separate from the body of British (although predominantly English) literature and culture, and oftentimes as monolithic.

The latter part is completely untrue, as Scotland is a nation with a rich history that has been shaped by people from all over the world. Over the centuries, the tapestry that makes up Scottish culture has been woven together by voices from different ethnicities, religions, and languages. As a writer of colour myself, I often noticed how my journey to publication involved several challenges, most notably that I was often told that literary works by writers of colour were unlikely to be commercial enough.

Given the wide variety of voices, from Robert Burns to Jackie Kay, which have shaped Scottish literature over the years, I have always found this viewpoint to be puzzling. When I began my journey into writing, I was determined to author a novel that captures the Scottish Indian experience with the caveat that like the Scottish experience, I recognize that there is no singular Scottish Indian experience. However, my hope in writing my first novel, Twice Born, was that future generations of Scottish Indians and other Scottish writers of colour would see an experience that reflected that of their own or that of their parents or grandparents.

As the 21st century continues to unfold, Scotland’s future and place in the world are still being formed. Whether as a part of the UK or as an independent nation, I know how important younger generations of Scots of colour are to shaping our country. Drawing inspiration from the Jhalak Prize for UK writers of colour, I began to get a sense of urgency to ensure that the next generation of Scottish writers of colour face less of an uphill climb than those who came before them.

After the warm reception to my debut crime novel, Murder at the Mela, I revisited my idea about how best to encourage future generations of writers of colour. The way my first crime novel was received showed me that there has been some progress and there is more of an appetite for diverse voices within the Scottish literary scene. On the heels of such a positive change, my initial idea was to have a small prize every two years, which would be presented at a local library. I approached a generous benefactor, who has asked to remain anonymous, about financially supporting such a prize. He was incredibly supportive and said that provided I was able to demonstrate there is a need for this, he would be happy to sponsor.

Shortly after my conversation with him, I approached Zoe Strachan at the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing Department. She has been absolutely wonderful and has been working tirelessly along with a team of talented people at Glasgow University to get the prize off the ground. Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Centre for Creative Writing, will offer a residency for the winner of the prize and the Association of Scottish Literature will provide some administrative support. Our judging panel was comprised of three tremendous Scottish writers and critics: Leila Aboulela, Tawona Sithole and Professor Bashabi Fraser.

The judges worked hard at this new prize and had encouraging words for all writers of colour. This is the first year of this unique prize so just raising awareness among emerging writers is a huge task. We were delighted to see the entries for the prize, and after much deliberation, the judges chose a shortlist of six superb pieces of literature:

The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters by Katie Goh (404 Ink)

Lament for Sheku Bayoh by Hannah Lavery (Salamander Street)

Toy Plastic Chicken by Uma Nada-Rajah (Salamander Street)

Sorrow, Tears and Blood by David Onamade (Arkbound Publishing)

Sikfan Glaschu by Sean Wai Keung (Verve Poetry Press)

This is Our Undoing by Lorraine Wilson (Luna Press)

The winner of the Kavya Prize – Toy Plastic Chicken by Uma Nada-Rajah – was announced at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library on 21 May as part of Aye Write, the second biggest book festival in Scotland and the biggest in the city of Glasgow. Bob McDevitt, the Director of the Aye Write Festival said, and I quote:

‘I’m especially inspired, this year, by the mix of authors: those long-established and much acclaimed; those who are just coming into our field of vision; those with their own personal stories to tell; and those whose mission it is to tell the stories of others.

Storytelling is what we’re all about here at Aye Write, and we hope that our packed 2022 programme will be the next compelling chapter in our very own story.’

What do I hope this unique prize will achieve? In the past few years, there has been clamour in the publishing world and demand from readers for more inclusive stories. The Kavya Prize will celebrate marginalized writers who have their own stories to tell. This is the Year of Scotland’s Stories 2022, a perfect start for Scottish writers of colour to contribute to mainstream Scottish Literature. The Kavya Prize will empower them to raise their voices, tell their stories and reach a wider audience. This biennial prize will ensure that writing in all genres is recognised. It also offers mentorship for aspiring writers, providing more role models that younger writers can look up to and setting a new standard for the future. I hope that the Kavya Prize will be a legacy that will place Scottish writers of colour on the literary map of Scotland, and a sanctuary for both writers of colour and their many readers in these dark times.

 

Leela Soma was born in Madras, India, and now lives in Glasgow. Her poems and short stories have been published in several anthologies and publications. She has published three novels, short stories and two collections of poetry; and a chapbook, ‘Chintz’, published by Dreich Press. Her poems have been published in GutterThe Blue NibAnthropoceneBlack Bough Poems, The Glasgow Review of Books and many others. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020 and has been appointed Scriever 2021 for the Federation of Writers, Scotland. She has just been added to the Scottish Poetry Library’s Guide to Scottish Poets. Murder at the Mela, the first DI Patel mystery, was published in 2020.

 

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