The author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel "The Lowland" has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Photo: Getty
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Writers of Colour: Shortlisted for prizes because of their individual worth, nothing else

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of head counts. But a good book just needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing.

We have always been told not to judge a book by its cover, so when did it become acceptable to judge a book by its author? Or, more specifically, the author’s sex and ethnic origins?

Last week the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Award for non-fiction was announced which prompted a blog complaining that the list was: “all-white and only five women”.

As a British-Indian woman writer, neither element had occurred to me. My reactions ranged from being thrilled to see William Dalrymple’s Return of a King after I’d helped edit the manuscript, to immediately buying Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike, and reminding myself to finish Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. Certainly it’s permissible to dispute the nominated books if there are glaringly obvious absentees. But the complaints were never followed up with a list of alternative authors and books or reasoned argument in favour of either. In a blog about judging the prize, Mary Beard wrote that it’s impossible not to reflect on the different male and female styles in non-fiction but that ultimately “would I recommend this book to a friend”?

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of colour-coordinated, gender-related head counts. Naturally when it comes to Parliament, or councils and committees with whom my fate rests, I want to see members chosen who best represent my voice and who reflect the diversity of the society in which we live.

But if I thought I had been hired for my job because I have brown skin, wear a bra, and make the masthead look exotic, I’d be nothing short of livid. I should be there because I’m the best candidate for the role, I can edit more tightly than anyone else who applied, and I understand what constitutes a dangling modifier. After all, I want to feel like my two degrees were worth my time and hard work.

And of course this isn’t just restricted to ethnic origins or gender.

Only recently an article appeared in the Guardian expressing outrage that a grammar-school pupil who had achieved 7 A* at A-level had been rejected by Merton College, Oxford, yet accepted by Harvard and Stanford. Oxford’s standard rejection letter revealed little about the reason behind their decision, but it’s a gross accusation to cry blanket elitism without scratching beneath the surface. Perhaps the pupil didn’t interview well, maybe the other candidates – in addition to having similar grades – were county tennis captains, debating champions or musical geniuses. Only recently I’ve seen job applications attached to CVs packing first-class Oxbridge degrees, enviable internships and numerous awards. These included: a food writer who misspelt Gordon Ramsay; a fact-checker who highlighted his 14-hour “shits” on Newsnight and a travel writer who turned up 90 minutes late for an interview because she couldn’t find her way to the office. The decisions to hire, or not to hire, boiled down to the individual’s worth and their suitability for the position.

Which brings me back to books.

Two days ago the Man Booker shortlist was announced. “Only one British author on shortlist” said the Daily Mail. And when this year’s Guardian First Book Award shortlist revealed seven women and four men, one blog declared, “yet more vindication that the reading public want female literary talent to be recognised”. Well, no, not really, that’s what the Women’s Prize for Fiction is for. The argument that awards should represent women as 50 per cent of the population holds no water. Women might make up 50 per cent of the population – but do they make up 50 per cent of the writing population? Currently the Top 100 books on Amazon contain only 26 books written by women – 27 if you include Robert Galbraith/ J K Rowling – which seems a better indication of what the book-buying public is reading.

A good book needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing, and it doesn’t matter where its author comes from or whether they have to stand or sit to pee. The last two books I read were Jim Crace’s Harvest because the opening paragraph was at once lyrically beautiful, intriguing and unnerving, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland because I’ve loved her other work. And unlike V S Naipaul, I can’t claim to be able to identify female prose from the outset – if at all. George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans used a pen name to make sure her works were taken seriously, and I remember aged nine, reading Silas Marner at school, adoring the book and being none the wiser about the sex of the writer.

It’s not about where the author was born, what passport they hold or whether they are women or men, it’s about an individual’s worth and their words should speak for themselves.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge