An investment firm is trying to award its “Emerging Voices” prize to already-famous writers

Emerged, but fully-grown.
Emerged, but fully-grown.
Image: CC/Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
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Two halves of a forsaken eggshell make up the logo of the art world’s newest and oddest prize, the $40,000 FT/OppenheimerFunds “Emerging Voices Awards“, which on Friday, June 12, announced its first-ever long list of honorees in visual art, film, and literature.

Co-sponsored by the Financial Times and OppenheimerFunds, an investment firm that promises “high conviction & unconventional market wisdom,” the FT/OF prize certainly hits the unconventional bull’s-eye.

It’s hard to think of another literary award that measures author eligibility by Gross National Income per capita, only accepting work from passport-holders of a country where the GNI is less than $12,746. This year, the award considered novels from low-to-mid-GNI passport-holders in the Middle East and North Africa, films from Asia, and visual art from the Caribbean and South America. In future years, eligible regions will rotate.

Sure, there are other investment firms paired with literature prizes: The Man Group, for instance, sponsors England’s high-profile Booker awards. But the FT and OF aren’t just sponsoring the awards: Four FT editors sit on the panel of judges, as does the OF’s Director of Emerging Markets Equities, Justin Leverenz. Writers on the judging panel include Egyptian pop-novelist Alaa al-Aswany, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, and Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed.

When the awards opened their doors earlier this year, there was some confusion about who could submit.

After all, the phrase “Emerging Voices” usually refers to writers with just a few books under their belts. Egyptian novelist Nael Eltoukhy, on the ten-book longlist for his rollicking, wonderful Women of Karantina, was baffled by his inclusion. He wrote in a Facebook message that he thought the prize was going to be for young authors.

Arabic readers greeted the idea that longlisted Lebanese author Elias Khoury could be called “emerging” with raised eyebrows and a number of exclamation points. Khoury, one of the most well-known and celebrated Arabic-language novelists, is annually mentioned for the Swedish prize named for that guy who invented dynamite. He’s on the list for his beautiful, winding Sinalcol.

It’s also a stretch to call longlisted South African novelists Ingrid Winterbach and Mandla Langa “emerging.” Indeed, the full list of novelists whose works were submitted is a grab-bag that includes some of the world’s most prominent authors who happen to hold passports from low-to-mid-GNI countries: Mozambican novelist Mia Couto and Libya novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, both on the shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker International, as well as Legion of Honor winner Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who had a postage-stamp issued for him in his native Iran.

In a strangely transparent gesture, the FT/OF prize organizers have listed all authors whose works were considered for the prize, without mentioning which particular novel was submitted. This long-long list includes “Anonymous (Casey B Dolan),” who is either anonymous or South African actress Casey B. Dolan.

It’s true that translated works have been marginalized from English-language literary conversations. But where “emerging markets” and “emerging voices” are conflated, nothing prevents Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee from throwing his books in for consideration.

Certainly, a New York-based investment firm has good reason to show interest in software companies in Harare or clothing manufacturers in Quito: They can get something on the cheap before other investors are willing to put in a toe. In the same way, the FT/OF seems to want to snap up these literary “emerging voices,” offering them up to the rest of us, who are presumably still unaware that there could be great writers in places like Nigeria, Algeria, or South Africa.

Meanwhile, whatever was inside the prize-logo egg—a dinosaur? a flamingo? an author?—has hatched and left the nest, leaving no trace.