Prizes Upon Prizes, Difficulties Upon Difficulties

Wow -- the prizes this week are stacking up like harvest pumpkins for sale in the little roadside stands that I pass on my way to work (through rural Bucks County, to Bethlehem).

As most readers probably already know, the Nobel Peace prize today went to Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Earlier in the week, Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss. And yesterday, Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's worth noting that all three of these prizes are in some sense tied to serious problems in the world: Kiran Desai's novel deals with problems related to globalization; Orhan Pamuk's most recent novel, Snow, is preoccupied with the seeming collapse of Turkish secularism; and the Grameen Bank is an institution that has sprung up to assist desperately poor people in making small movements forward. Prizes upon prizes -- difficulties upon difficulties.

Teju Cole has worthwhile comments and links on both Pamuk and Desai. His Desai post links to Amitava Kumar's comment here. Amitava has suggested some similarities between The Inheritance of Loss and an earlier Booker-prize winner, The God of Small Things. I myself haven't gotten around to reading the Desai yet (though it's been sitting on my shelf for months), so I'll have to remain mum on that question.

I myself wrote a long post on Orhan Pamuk's Snow last year, which you can read here if interested. The first part of the post is the strongest; I'm no longer sure why I thought I needed to mention Hegel in that post.

On the Grameen Bank, the key lines for me in the New York Times profile were these ones:

The Peace Prize “looks like a fitting acknowledgment that the ways of the market are not necessarily evil, that markets can be harnessed as forces of good if done properly,” said Nachiket Mor, executive director of Icici Bank, India’s largest privately owned bank, which now has about $550 million in microcredit loans outstanding. (link)

That is a sentiment I tend to agree with. The Grameen Bank is a for-profit institution, and it has succeeded in actually being profitable for all but three of its fifteen years in business.

I know there have been some criticisms of the microlending model, which has now been copied in many countries outside of Bangladesh (within Bangladesh, BRAC is also very active with microlending). I'm curious if people can expand on these, since I haven't heard anything that makes me think there is a serious downside to this. Saurav at Pass the Roti has suggested that it's probably a mistake to see this as a cookie-cutter solution to poverty everywhere, which sounds right. But that doesn't necessarily mean microcredit specifically in the context of the Indian subcontinent can't make a positive difference for thousands of people.

(As an aside, every time I read about microlending, I think of Premchand's Godaan, and how different that novel would have been if there had been a Grameen Bank in the picture)

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Incidentally, I myself was involved with the selection of a Prize (a much smaller one of course) this fall. I was a judge for the national fiction prize that is held every year by the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York. Twenty novels were nominated, and I spent a significant chunk of my summer reading them.

The winner this fall is Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. This is a novel about a working-class boy from a mixed race background growing up in Thailand, a country teeming with foreign tourists. It's a really smart, elegantly written novel, and I hope to have a more detailed take on it in a couple of weeks (whenever I get another spare hour to sit down and write!).

There were also a handful of South Asian novels nominated, and some were quite good. I might start doing profiles of some of those books too, now that the prize has been announced.