The Orange Prize for Fiction is a UK-based award for female fiction writers. Nevertheless, in its 16-year history, the Bessie as the token bronze sculpture that the winner receives is called, has been awarded to more Americans than Brits. Also noteworthy is that three black writers have been awarded the prestigious accolade known to boost sales of winning books by up to 835 percent.

This year the long list acknowledged three African writers: Aminatta Forna, Lola Shoneyin and Leila Aboulela. Out of the three, Forna, a Scottish and Sierra Leonian writer whose novel, The Memory of Love, is contesting against five other works of fiction, was the only one to also make it to the short list for the award ceremony scheduled to take place in June 2011.

If Forna takes home the Bessie in June, she will join Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the black female authors who have won the Orange-prize for fiction. Also, if she wins, it will mean that every fourth Orange prizewinner so far would be a black woman.

Although good literature has no gender, race, class or sexual preference, there are tendencies within the publishing industry to categorize authors and their works by traits that have little to do with their achievements. For example, men who write about family life are literary writers whilst women who tackle the same topic are genre writers, writing about “domestic” issues. A novel like the English Patient, written by a white author (Michale Oondatje) and set against the backdrop of World War II is a literary novel, whereas a story that unfolds in a war tormented African nation, gets a multitude of labels: an “Africa” novel, a “war-story”, or even better, an “African war-story”.

This type of gendered and racialised categorizing is alienating and often results in what Orange prizewinner Adichie refers to as the danger of the single story. She aptly says, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

One of the former judges of the Orange prize for fiction, Sarah Churchwell says, “It’s all identity politics. Women’s fiction is for women, black fiction is for blacks, gay fiction is for gays, ergo, because I am none of those things, I have permission not to read those things.”

The Orange Prize’s judges are asked to look for “excellence, originality and accessibility” and their selections are trusted by a vast breadth of readers not only in the UK, but also in every corner of the world. It is a delight that in a world where black women often seem invisible, here’s one award where we make 25% (okay, I’m jumping ahead of myself). Fingers crossed for Aminatta Forna!

What are your thoughts? Should literature be categorized by race and gender?


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