Making a noise in the bookcase

The Decibel Prize is a new award for writers of African, Caribbean or Asian descent. But is it necessary in a multicultural society?
Click to follow

The Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah has earned a reputation for saying no. No to an OBE because of its associations with a "blood-stained, stolen empire". And no to an honorary degree from an (unnamed) university after its panel told him it would be "cool" to have him on board.

The Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah has earned a reputation for saying no. No to an OBE because of its associations with a "blood-stained, stolen empire". And no to an honorary degree from an (unnamed) university after its panel told him it would be "cool" to have him on board.

Now the British Book Awards have nominated Zephaniah for their Decibel Writer of the Year award. It derives its unusual name from an Arts Council initiative aimed at encouraging cultural diversity. This new honour for a writer of African, Caribbean or Asian descent has novelists Andrea Levy, Hari Kunzru and Malorie Blackman alongside Zephaniah on its shortlist.

What does Zephaniah make of this? In his poem "Bought and Sold", he writes, "Smart big awards and prize money/ Is killing off black poetry". Will he say no to the Decibel prize? "Any award that raises the profile of a struggling minority community is a good thing," he says.

"I think there should be no need for an Orange Prize [the women-only literature prize] or Decibel Prize. But there is still discrimination. A lot of good writing still gets overlooked. Until the discrimination and marginalisation go away we need to find ways of bigging up these people and raising their profiles with awards like this."

His own entry for the prize is his third novel, Gangsta Rap , the story of black teenager Ray who gets kicked out of school, then finds himself mixed up in a world of gangs and hip-hop. The poet says he's delighted to find his work gaining recognition. "This is about the book, and not about me. The OBE was about a kind of tokenism. If they'd really read my work they'd have known I wasn't going to accept it." He'd even gone as far as attacking the OBE in a poem. "But they just thought, yeah 'Cool Britannia, a black Rastafarian'."

Andrea Levy's Decibel entry, Small Island , has already won over judges for the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize, with its tale of Jamaican immigrants trying to make their way in a hostile post-war Britain. Doesn't her success prove that the black and Asian communities don't really need their own award? Her books can already compete with the best of mainstream literature, and win. "No, I think the more awards the merrier," says Levy with a laugh. "A prize is all about making books more visible.

"Whatever does that makes me happy, whether it's the Orange Prize or the Whitbread Prize. If there's a prize now for African, Caribbean and Asian writers, then why not?"

Malorie Blackman writes books for children of all ages, and Knife Edge , the second in her acclaimed Noughts and Crosses trilogy, earned her a place on the Decibel shortlist. She believes the award isn't just a way of helping a minority community. "It's a way of celebrating the fact that we have such diverse voices in our literature," she says.

Like Zephaniah, the fourth nominee, Hari Kunzru, caused a media furore last year by refusing an award for his debut novel, The Impressionist . He turned down the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize on the grounds that its sponsor, The Mail on Sunday , showed "hostility towards black and Asian people". The Decibel nomination (for his second novel, Transmission ) is more palatable to the writer, but he believes it fails to address the real problem in publishing - the fact that it remains a white middle-class enclave. In particular he cites literary agencies as "the whitest working environment in British arts and media". Even the people working in publishing agree. A survey commissioned by the Arts Council discovered that nearly half the people in publishing think they work in a "white, middle-class ghetto". Some publishers decided to take steps to right this imbalance. Time Warner and Penguin both adopted schemes to foster minority entrants, while Faber and Random House advertise "positive action" traineeships.

Zephaniah says he meets many liberal people in publishing, but wonders why the literary parties he goes to are so white, and why the meetings he attends are always held in Covent Garden, not Brixton or Hackney. "I don't know if I'm being naïve, but it's almost as if the publishing people are in the house on the top of the hill and they're saying to everyone else, 'Come up'. But why don't they go down and meet them."

Zephaniah's book launches take place in a community bookshop in the heart of London's East End, not in a swanky Soho club. "We turn it into a sort of party with local rappers. All the kids go away feeling they're involved."

Whatever the state of the industry in general, all the shortlisted authors agree that the shelves of British bookshops are pleasantly diverse these days. Readers no longer conform to stereotypes. Young black girls will seek out Jane Austen, while middle-aged white men will tuck a copy of Monica Ali's Brick Lane into their briefcase.

How times have changed. "When I was starting out 10 years ago publishers didn't quite know what to do with my books," says Levy.

Blackman agrees: "I had people telling me I should make my characters white because the books would sell more."

She received 80 rejection letters before a publisher accepted her first novel, and she had to fight to have a black child on the cover of some of her books. In the early days she resorted to not mentioning the colour of her characters and then adding in those details once a publisher was interested.

Publishers repeatedly told Zephaniah that they had no room for a black Rastafarian poet. "Some of them were liberal people, they just couldn't see how they could market me."

These days the literary field has opened up to a multiplicity of voices. But some of the Decibel nominees remain concerned that publishers take too few risks. "Asian writers are fortunate because the Indian novel already has a history of success," says Hari Kunzru. "That's quite advantageous for young British Asians like myself."

Black writers have more of a struggle on their hands. Zephaniah thinks publishers find some black and Asian writing too much of a challenge. " I don't think they're scared of the subject but I think they're scared of investing in it. It's really easy for people to write about certain things in the Asian community - arranged marriages, cultural identity - because white people are quite comfortable with reading those things."

His cousin, Michael Powell, died while in police custody, but Zephaniah doubts a publisher would be interested in a book about that. "They'd worry that people wouldn't want to read it. But it's a fact of life for people in the black community."

Still, the very existence of the Decibel awards and the calibre of talent on its shortlist gives a good indication of the publishing industry's commitment to its Caribbean, African and Asian writers. As Hari Kunzru puts it, "People are very well disposed towards black and Asian writers these days. Zadie Smith and Monica Ali - need I say more? This is not a story about being silenced."

The winning author will be announced at the British Book Awards on 20 April, screened on Channel 4's The Richard and Judy Show on 22 April