Swedish journalist Alexandra Pascalidou establishes the New Academy prize in literature

Aug 19, 2018, 07:24 IST | Jane Borges

Swedish journalist Alexandra Pascalidou was on the brink of creating history

Swedish journalist Alexandra Pascalidou establishes the New Academy prize in literature
Alexandra Pascalidou

On the morning of May 4, when fans of George Lucas's Star Wars were busy flooding each others' social media timelines with 'May The Fourth Be With You' greetings, Swedish journalist Alexandra Pascalidou was on the brink of creating history.

Having spent months following the developments of the sexual abuse and corruption scandal in the Swedish Academy - the eminent body that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature - Pascalidou recalls feeling anger and shame at how the events were unfolding in her home country. "We have a government that calls itself feminist and is one of the most equal countries in the world. We take a clear stand against sexism," says Pascalidou, of why she was so shocked. But, what hurt most was when the Academy took the bold step of cancelling the Nobel on May 4. "Being an author myself, and hailing from a poor family without academic traditions, I know that many authors really need the prize money and acknowledgment to be able to write. If they [the Academy] can't do their job, they should resign and let somebody else take over. I wondered why they would punish literature and authors," she says in an email interview.

Call it a decision taken impulsively or on an emotional whim, Pascalidou took to social media soon after, to announce the setting up of The New Academy, which she said was to be an alternative to the Nobel, where readers from across the globe - and not an august panel - would vote the new writing laureate. "We wanted to create a new and unique prize process, which was a democratic, inclusive and international one. But, we had no time or money to plan this. We had to act under pressure and find/recruit talented people, who believed in our vision and idea and wanted to contribute without any payment," says Pascalidou. "Establishing something new is never easy. On the way, you also find out that some very enthusiastic people, lose interest and drop off. Or, they're not ready to take risks and work hard," she recalls.

Three months on and over 30,000 votes later - voting closed on August 14 - Pascalidou's dream appears to be finally taking shape with the fate of the 46-strong list of nominees, just inches away from being sealed. Among the nominees, writer Arundhati Roy was the only Indian name to make the cut. The other favourites include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and surprisingly, even Britain's JK Rowling and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, reflecting that the alternative to the Nobel is not elitist in sentiment.

What makes the New Academy also stand out is that all the nominees were selected by Swedish librarians. In fact, the librarians will also choose the fourth finalist - the other three will be selected after the counting of votes. "They have studied literature and they work with books on a daily basis. They meet the readers. They stimulate reading and help people discover new authors. They give people from different social classes the chance to discover literature," explains Pascalidou on why she chose the librarian community to be part of the debut award. "We, of course, had the usual elitist types making fun of the whole idea," she adds.

The final four shortlisted writers and winner will be announced in October, with the winner taking home one million kronor (Rs 76 lakh). The fact that they are still far from generating the funds for the gala awards night, has been a bit of a concern. "But, we felt from the beginning that if we are doing this, we want to do it big. By aiming at one million Swedish kronor we have set the bar really high, motivating us to work even harder. Having said that, we have not secured the funding yet and welcome all contributions - big and small. Accepting donations from the general public adds to the value of the price, so that when the winner receives the award it will truly be a prize of and from the people," says the award-winning writer and journalist, who is also the recipient of the European of the Year 2015 and The Great Feminist Award 2016.

At present, around 130 people from across the globe - have extended their support to the New Academy. "Even though the voting is closed, we still have a lot of work ahead of us," says Pascalidou, adding that its purely the love for literature, writing and reading that has won the New Academy all the support it has received. Writer Manoj Pandey, most known for his Twitter project @TalesonTweet, has been appointed as representative of its India programme. "They [Swedish Academy] have the king, they have millions of crowns, they have privileges and they're appointed for lifetime. We have our passion and dedication to fill in the gap this year and award a worthy author in Stockholm."

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