SI Leeds Literary Prize: Interview with winner Minoli Salgado

12th Oct 2012

SI Leeds Literary Prize Shortlisted Authors

The brand new SI Leeds Literary Prize celebrates the unpublished work of Black and Asian women living in Britain. The prize is partnered with the much loved Illkley Literature Festival and Peepal Tree Press, and aims to “act as a loudspeaker” for new and exciting literature by the Black and Asian community, a group “largely unrepresented on our bookshelves”.

Patron of the event, Bidisha, is a writer, critic, broadcaster and human rights advocate, and she has this to say about the event:

The prize is a testament to the importance and manifest talent of women and a tribute to the gift of cultural, national, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The prize is important and necessary but, more than that, it is introduced to the world as an act of joy, happiness and the discovery of new work. Join us in celebration.

As part of the award, we interviewed all those short listed for the prize. In this article, we talk to the winner of the first ever SI Leeds Literary Prize, Minoli Salgado, who won the £2000 prize and specially commissioned trophy by Yorkshire artist Seiko Kinoshita with her piece A Little Dust on the Eyes.

FBS: What made you decide to submit to the SI Leeds Literary Prize, and could you tell us a little about the piece you submitted?

Minoli: I  had written two books, a novel and a book of short stories, and had revised them several times till I felt they were as good as I could make them. I was in the process of sending them to publishers and agents, many of whom had responded positively – a few gave them serious consideration but weren’t prepared to commit.

Both books are set in Sri Lanka, my ancestral home, and I guess the thread that links them is my interest in silenced stories – something that has been an abiding concern ever since I became aware of how much was being left unsaid in the country.

The SI Leeds Literary Prize came at a perfect time and offered that rare opportunity of an outlet for these narratives. I knew my books would be read by people who care about issues that really matter to me.

I entered both books for the competition and was lucky enough to see them both long-listed. As I mentioned before, the books deal with silenced stories from Sri Lanka – a country that has been through one of the longest civil wars in modern times as well as of course the world’s worst natural disaster, the Boxing Day tsunami.

I felt there was an urgent need to engage with these large historical events that took place in a country people know little about, while acknowledging my own dual perspective – of someone who travels back and forth and belongs in two places without fully belonging in either  – as well as the fact that such tragedies are difficult to write or speak about.

It was a thrill to see my novel make the short list. A breakthrough at last! As for the subject of the novel: A Little Dust on the Eyes tells the story of two cousins who have been separated by war and who are reunited just weeks before the tsunami strikes. It engages with migration, exile, memory and loss, and took years of research.

I travelled to Sri Lanka during some of the worst years of the conflict  – not so much for research at first, but to see my family  – and went to some of the areas where people were forcibly disappeared. I also happened to arrive in the country just hours before the tsunami struck.

When I decided to write the book, I wanted to be sure of the ‘facts’ and some of the material details before I let my characters go. And of course I had to wait until I had the time to write a full-length book.

Both these events, the civil war – which needs to be read in relation to its many different forms and phases – and the tsunami, were events so large that it takes a lot of time to process them, so in a way the period of research and thinking about things was good.

When you finally get down to the writing it’s a huge relief. At last you are starting to give shape and form – through the lives of your characters – to events that you’ve been carrying in you for a long time.

I happened to write the book in what would be the final years of the war – a particularly brutal time when the violence seemed like it would never end.

I must say I do feel I understand things a bit better having lived in the skin of Savi and Renu, the two cousins. I just hope I have done justice to the events they live through.

FBS: Why do you think it is so important to have publishers, literary awards, etc that focus solely on women, and specifically on Black and Asian women?

Minoli: It seems to me that publishers right now are playing it rather safe – not surprising of course given the current economic crisis. This has been my own experience in trying to get my books published. If your work takes risks – pushes the boundaries -it’s harder to get it out. Even with a decent publishing track record.

I have worked for some years (reading, writing and teaching) with literature written from the margins – what you might call ‘Black or Asian’ literature and literature by women – and I have always found that it is these marginalised voices that really engage with what all good literature is about: the outsider, the figure who doesn’t belong.

For me good imaginative writing carries you into a new way of looking at the world, and one of the main reasons I write is precisely because it allows me to express my own sense of being on the outside looking in. I believe it is this sense of not belonging that helps define exactly what a culture is.

In this sense a literary prize set aside for what you call ‘Black and Asian women’ – a term that of course goes against the grain of the increasingly mixed and fluid identities that make up the globalised world –  helps creates a space for those very voices that keep our culture alive.

As significantly, it recognises, at one and the same time, that such voices are marginalised but not marginal. And on a purely practical level, it is an important step in helping to get some very good books to press.

We interviewed all those shortlisted for the prize, so watch out for interviews with Karen Onojaife, who came second with Borrowed Light, and joint third place winners Emily Midorikawa, with A Tiny Speck of Black and Then Nothing, and Jane Steele, with Storybank: The Milkfarm Years.

Gina Kershaw