Akwaeke Emezi, who became the first non-binary transgender author to be nominated for the Women’s prize in 2019, has said that they will not let their future novels be entered for the award after the prize asked them for information on their sex as defined “by law”.
When Emezi made the running for the Women’s prize last year for their debut novel, Freshwater, judges said they were not aware of Emezi’s gender when reading submissions and described their longlisting as a “historic moment”.
But on Monday, Emezi said their publisher, Faber, had asked them if they wanted their second novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, to be submitted for the prize this year. Following the life and untimely death of a protagonist who tells his friends that they can “refer to him as either she or he, that he was both”, The Death of Vivek Oji was praised in the Guardian for achieving “what good fiction does best: it is an antidote to invisibility”.
“Their origin story is that men were excluding them w/the Booker, so when Freshwater was longlisted, I hoped it was a sign that they gave thought to who *they* were excluding,” Emezi wrote on Twitter. But Emezi said the longlisting had “brought a ton of violent shit my way, they got quite some publicity from it, and decided to change … nothing”.
Emezi said that when Faber got in touch with the Women’s prize about submitting The Death of Vivek Oji, they were informed: “The information we would require from you regards Akwaeke Emezi’s sex as defined by law.”
“Forget about me – I don’t want this prize – but anyone who uses this kind of language does not fuck with trans women either, so when they say it’s for women, they mean cis women,” wrote Emezi. “And yes, this does mean that them longlisting [Freshwater] was transphobic. It’s fine for me not to be eligible because I’m not a woman! But you not about to be out here on some ‘sex as defined by law’ like that’s not a weapon used against trans women.”
The Women’s prize was established in response to the Booker failing to shortlist a single female writer in 1991. Following Emezi’s nomination in 2019, the organisers of the £30,000 award said it was working on a policy “around gender fluid, transgender and transgender non-binary writers”.
Responding to Emezi’s comments, the prize organisers said that their terms and conditions for entry equated the word “woman” with “a cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone who is legally defined as a woman or of the female sex”.
“As a prize which celebrates the voices of women and the experience of being a woman in all its varied forms, we are proud to include as eligible for submission full-length novels written in English by all women,” said chair of trustees Joanna Prior. “In our terms and conditions, the word ‘woman’ equates to a cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone who is legally defined as a woman or of the female sex. The trustees of the Women’s Prize Trust would like to reassert that we are firmly opposed to any form of discrimination or prejudice on the basis of race, sexuality or gender identity.”
In Australia, the Stella prize for women’s writing takes entries from trans women, non-binary and cis women writers and does not require any statement beyond an author’s self identification, because “we recognise that what it means to be a woman is not static”. Meanwhile, a new US literary award, the Carol Shields prize for fiction, will celebrate “excellence in fiction” by female and non-binary writers.