Nicholas Hasluck straddles two worlds with equal ease. In one, he is a judge with the Supreme Court of Western Australia. In the other, he dons the gown of an acclaimed author who has ten published fictions, including the award-winning The Bellarmine Jug and The Country Without Music. Hasluck, who studied law at the University of Western Australia and Oxford University, has been the chairperson of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (CWP) judging panel since 2006. A member of the the Order of Australia (AM), this multi-faceted personality, Hasluck spoke with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari after finishing the judging process that selected Rana Dasgupta’s Solo for the top prize in Delhi:
As the chief judge of the CWP, do you think the Subcontinent has become the strongest hub of writing in English?
I think there is a very strong presence of the Subcontinent in Commonwealth writing, but I also think that we are getting a range of fascinating works from countries like Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand too. If you look into the winning books of the last four years, you have winners from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Pakistan. So I think you can see every part of the Commonwealth is coming into its own.
You get such diverse writing of high quality from all over the Commonwealth. What are the criteria you use in judging them?
I underline the point that the criteria is literary merit. What is literary merit is a broad term, but some of the conventional elements of fiction are to be considered in that, namely, style, grace of the writing, the mood and tone of the whole book, character plots, how engaging the author is with the theme, from which one develops a sense of what the author is trying to achieve, and whether it is experimental or conventional. I think the judges are looking for a sense of whether the work is harmonious between character and plot styles. We are also interested in signs of innovation, as can been seen in the last few decades, for example in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which was a book of great exuberance but developed a completely new idiom, almost a formless narrative.
How does the shortlisting for the prize happen?
The great strength of the CWP, and particularly in recent years it has been steadily gaining a lot of prestige for that, is the diversity of the judging and the screening process. Each of the four regions – Africa, Canada-Caribbean, South Asia & Europe, and South-East Asia & Asia-Pacific – entries are received from publishers, are shortlisted by regional judging panels and ultimately the regional winner is found. It is quite obvious that you are drawing out a wide variety of published works from the Commonwealth countries through this. If you run a literary competition from London, it is quite obvious that the publishers will be focusing on books that have been well reviewed in the London press, but the reality will be that they will be ignoring this enormous wealth of talent of the Commonwealth. So I think our prize has drawn out so many wonderful books that otherwise might have escaped attention. And of course some of recent winners have gone on to succeed in the London based prizes, including the Booker Prize. I think CWP is gaining in standing and prestige because of this.
There is a huge number of languages in these countries which have their own excellent literary traditions. Is there some thought on how to bring that under some kind of umbrella like the CWP?
You have a raised a matter that is being kept very much under discussion. We are conscious of that. One would be wanting to tap into all the Commonwealth literature, but there are certain logistical problems in finding a wider range of judges other than the English language judges. That is to be solved, but there is an immense amount of literature that needs to be included if that can be done. But I cannot point you to any immediate solution to that.