The Kavya Prize – The Winning Pieces


‘You are a little surprised to see her at the reading of your own book.’

In 2023, The Kavya Prize was awarded to unpublished writers of colour who are Scottish by birth, residence or inclination. BfS are thrilled to share some of the writing that was recognised by the judges. Here we publish extracts from the joint winners’ pieces.


Q Mannivan
An Extract from The Physics of It

You’ve been thinking of old homes lately:                             You’ve been thinking of old homes lately:
an insatiable loneliness, Delhi in an                                        an adolescent insomnia, your mother
air-conditioned bedroom with large                                       putting you to sleep (despite her own
windows overlooking parched fields that                              desires for rest), in a single bed against the
shimmer in the June heat. You’re eating a                            wall in a small room lit ochre by an old
spicy paratha (the cook was trying to kill                              incandescent bulb hanging from the centre
you) on the edge of a bed (two separate                               of the ceiling, naked and round. She
frames wedged together, creaky), watching                         stacked pillows on the other edge so you
a cowherd graze livestock between                                        wouldn’t fear falling. You wondered how
incomplete brick homes that remained,                                one falls (asleep), the physics of it – why
forever, incomplete. This memory too is                               an otherwise reliable gravity, when you
incomplete. These homes no longer exist.                            needed it most, ceased to exist.

You’re dressed in her clothes, she brought                           Amma sang the Kanda Shasti Kavasam, an
you your red plastic plate along with hers                            old Tamil hymn to the gods that began
and sat next to you with her brown hair in                           with a desperate prayer to protect a child:
two low pigtails, wiping her washed hands                           its body, its eyes, and its skin. She sang it
on an ex’s oversized boxers that she’s                                    with a high tone rocking back and forth,
wearing, dipping into mango pickle your                              patting you softly on your arm over your
mum packed for you on every visit home                              favourite blue chequered blanket. Amma’s
(whatever home meant to you then).                                    a lot like her. Consistent, warm, safe.

The cows moved as one: fluid, trickling                                 The song moved to more violent threads. It
through the landscape, flowing to the                                   asked that the gods protect your arms, your
corners and then back to the source again.                          cheeks, your inner organs, your neck, and
The sight vaguely resembled a lava lamp                              your teeth. It moved viciously, violently,
spread out flat, like mercury toy gifts that                            alongside this honey soft whisper, the
came heavy with the fear that should the                             tender eyes that your mum’s singing
glass break, should the liquid metal do                                  brought even when loudly sung. Every
anything but remain distant and                                             note echoed as if arriving tired and weary
inaccessible, if it were to cease being                                     from a long journey, from a place a great
visual and turn tactile, you would be                                      distance away, unreachable but for this
sullied.                                                                                          moment.

There was that familiar silence between us                          The room, once familiar, took different
after a difficult night, the kind of weight                               shapes and assumed different colours, as if
that knew separation was inevitable but                               the night itself was reshaped by her voice.
also that we didn’t want to leave, that                                  Towards the end, the hymn prays for
should the quiet have its moment then, we                         ghosts, devils, strangers, and bad men to
would have another day; two frames                                     fear you. ‘Make them all afraid of me /
wedged together, creaky. You remember                              Make them roll on the floor in fear / Make
this but you cannot remember her, at least                          them shout loudly and get mad / Tie them
not as well.                                                                                    tight / Break their hands and legs.’

It’s 2022 and the University College Union                           It’s 2020 and you’re one among many at
(UCU), the primary academic trade union                             night time at India Gate, New Delhi, a
in the United Kingdom, is failing in its                                    towering monument underneath which a
bureaucracies, the NHS is in crisis, the PM                           ceremonial flame has burned for decades
is xenophobic, autumn is fading into                                      mourning the India-Pakistan War, around
winter, and the Queen is dead. You are at a                         which thousands of protestors have
UCU rally at the Dundee City Square,                                     gathered to oppose an Islamaphobic and
speaking amidst colleagues gathered from                           discriminatory citizenship act. The flame
Palestine, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and even                                   mourns only the Indian soldiers killed. The
further, England, and they ask you to                                     demonstrators read part of the Indian
speak about what a university is, what it                              Constitution out loud, asking what it meant
means to you. You pause and wonder.                                   to be a citizen of a country, this country.

A few days later, you’re invited to debate                             A few days later, the police wise up,
with a professor from Westminster against                          station themselves a mile before the
a BBC journalist at Parliament Hall in St                                 protest site, and detain you before you
Andrews, Scotland. The topic: This House                             even arrive. They lift you (one per limb)
Believes that the UK Must Impose                                          straight out of the rickshaw while the
Sanction on Rwanda. You and your partner                          media takes photographs, and deposit you
are arguing against the motion and your                               into their van. You start an Instagram Live
case is easy – sanctions without a viable                               stream, and ask a policewoman in broken
opposition party that can assume power                              Hindi, ‘Where are you taking me?’ She
are historically and logistically ineffective,                            says nothing. You ask her if she has a
they affect working class people, and they                           notice justifying the detention. She smiles.
seldom force regimes with control over                                ‘You’ll see in a moment.’ You smile back.
resources to cease this control.                                               You have no control, and you’re afraid.

You perform an arrogance you learned as                             It’s your first time in police detention, and
an undergraduate debater, to conflate,                                 a friend who’s a lawyer joins you inside
stretch, logicize, and analyse every                                         after failing to convince the station
possible angle and also be funny. You say:                            officials to release you. He came largely
‘Well now that the monarchy is losing                                   since his girlfriend insisted he leave his
steam, its public funds should be                                            workplace and offer me help, although he
repurposed for Rwanda and other African                            knew such detention rarely lasted for
countries affected either directly or                                       longer than until evening. You’re
indirectly by European imperialism. These                           powerless in the face of this love and deep
are not ‘aid’ packages, but reparations.’                                down, there’s guilt and uncertainty.
You pause after the statement, for dramatic                        Everyone is worthy of love, yes, but not
effect, but receive hesitant applause amid                           everyone is worthy all the time for all love.
looks of dread. You realise that you failed                             You wonder – whose love is it that holds
to notice a member of royalty seated in the                        your safety? Yours, his, or his girlfriend’s?
crowd who then, in not altogether                                         You remember feeling that yours was a
unexpected anger, scowled at you for the                            collateral safety: a lucky privilege,
rest of the night. You lose the debate.                                   unearned, undeserved, and passing.


Jinling Wu
Extract taken from Cocoon

You are a little surprised to see her at the reading of your own book. She comes in late and sits in the last row. She is in blue jeans and a white shirt with coffee in hand, like an ordinary housewife. Only when you look at her delicate intelligent face, you recognise her. Until a decade ago, she was one of the most important writers in the publishing world, the kind that made plain paper expensive. She has ten books under her belt. Every single book is a bestseller. It was rare for a writer to have this kind of energy and consistently outperform her peers. You are, unfortunately, the kind of writer who started many titles but never finished a single book. But you do read ferociously. Hence it was convenient for you to become a critic. Now you have finally accumulated something that resembles a real book with many small pieces you have written for papers throughout the years. But you know that it is broken from within. The only reason it is being published is that you are living in a good time in an affluent country and there are sufficient resources to satisfy your needs to be seen. It will never become a hit in the market. In a few years, you will find it in a deserted corner of a second-hand bookshop for 50p but looking new. Considering your advanced age, it is likely to be your only book. Now you see your favourite writer in your own book launch in your home city. You do get something good in life after a long lonely journey, don’t you?

You two live in the same city, you in your small apartment in the city centre, she in her mansion in the suburb. The last time your paths crossed was ten years ago at an event at a book festival while she chatted about her latest publication. You sat in the audience, unknown. Then everyone heard about her affair with an old-time friend. It didn’t surprise you, that a charismatic writer would have an affair. The scandal itself didn’t really affect her pathway to the market. You imagined she would come up with something about a modern-day witch hunt, a poignant albeit sexy new romance, or a soul-searching personal tale. But instead, nothing has come out under her name ever since and she has been completely invisible for a decade. Yet she is here, at your book launch. You would not trade such an opportunity for a lottery win. You read the piece you feel most proud of and wait for curious inquiries. There are quite a few questions but none from her. You are a little disappointed but not at all surprised.

You are surprised to see her at the afterparty, though. She stayed because she was spotted by a nosy agent at the reading and became as involved in a long conversation. You brave yourself to talk to her and you dare to ask her if she remembers your name from the paper. She confirms that she has read your reviews of her books. You are thrilled to know she remembers you. You force yourself again to ask if you could sit down with her to have an exclusive interview. She considers it for a minute and agrees on the condition that you two will chat, but whether the content can be published will depend on how it goes.

You are thrilled to be able to see her again. The ordinary days of the next month are suddenly filled with excitement. You treat yourself with glittering things you usually find no reason for. You even giggle at the bus driver’s bad joke like a teenage girl. It feels nice to be giddy and alive.

You carefully dress for the meeting. When she shows up, you are so nervous that you spill the tea on your dress. She comforts you with a gentle squeeze of your hand. You are moved by the ordinary side of her, far from the intimidating arrogance and narcissism she is famous for and has been much criticised for. You carefully take in her look with her pearl drop earrings, pink silk blouse, and soft white leather shoes. You imagine your readers will be interested in these details. Her skin is so supple that she would look a lot younger than you without the white hair. You start your interview by asking how life has been for her in the last ten years. ‘Like everyone else: with some joy and a lot of worries.’ You ask what kind of worries and she brushes it off with a breezy ‘like everyone else’s’. You feel the urge to quickly change the topic as her gaze drifts away to other people sitting in the tea room. You ask whose books she is currently reading. She tosses out a few foreign names you have heard about but have not read. Then she mentions another few you have read and loved, too. You push further to ask about her relationship status. She refuses to provide any substantial details other than that she is still with the same person. She is most enthusiastic about her recent travel. She depicts her trip to a hot chaotic Mediterranean city with ordinary words but they make you feel like you are traveling with her. You can almost breathe in the unpleasant vehicle exhaust, feel the frustration of not knowing when to cross the road among the chaotic traffic, and then get totally carried away by the orange blossom and magnificent architecture after entering a narrow door opened up on one side of a small lane. Your eyes become the state-of-the-art movie camera on a meandering dolly. You are absorbing the visuals with the highest definition and a soundtrack that is masterly created. You do not doubt that you are in a movie with the most exciting screenwriting behind it. The screening stops when she gets tired and pauses to sip her tea.

You think it is probably a good time to ask the difficult question: Is she still writing? Why is she no longer publishing? ‘I don’t feel the need to write on paper.’ She says, ‘I talk more nowadays, to my friend.’ You do not seem to understand it. So you decide to share the ailment that has bothered you for decades and ask her advice on how to stay productive as a writer. She looks at you in your eyes for a beat and says slowly: ‘I see you made a lot of effort for today’s interview and I thank you for taking me seriously. But do you take yourself as seriously as me, or any of the other strangers you write about?’

Her question catches you off-guard. You are flustered and excuse yourself to the restroom. In the restroom, you examine yourself in the mirror. You have the same bob cut as you had twenty years ago because you are afraid of looking edgy or simply different. You wear a dress with too many colours that make you look like moving wallpaper. You paint blush on your cheek to please your guest but in fact, you are more animated when you are not in makeup. You’ve cocooned yourself into a cliche. Your writer’s block is not a block. It is a hideaway. It lets you make yourself invisible. You struggled to be seen by others for so many years. But the reason for that is you do not wish to see yourself. You choose your shelter in the darkness. You approached her for the light but you have been burned by the light she exudes.

When you get out of the bathroom, you see her paying the bill. She needs to catch dinner with her partner. You squeeze her hand to thank her for meeting you. Her hand is cool and soft; it doesn’t burn.

After the meeting, you take a detour to visit your favourite bookstore to pick up the expensive notebook you’ve always wanted, thinking maybe the book you just published will not be your only one in this world.

The Rituals of Eating

Lao Zhuang is a chicken farmer. He doesn’t eat chicken. In the same town, the pig farmer Da Liu doesn’t eat pork. Da Liu’s brother Xiao Liu, a beef farmer doesn’t eat beef. When the three farmers meet, they eat vegetarian meals. In the poor old days, they used to eat vegetarian meals because it was too cold to go spearfishing in the river in winter. Their wallets have bulged up since two decades ago. Nowadays, they drive tough off-road cars and wear expensive fur coats. But they can not make themselves eat the meat that comes out of their own farms. They don’t trust meat from any other farm, either.

In the restaurant, the three farmers are waiting for their lunch. When the waitress comes in to serve their usual vegetarian meal, Lao Zhuang sighs. Da Liu asks what is on Lao Zhuang’s mind.

‘My daughter is coming back from the UK. I don’t know what kind of food I can give her to eat.’ Lao Zhuang’s daughter Xiao Zhuang resides in the UK. It will be her first visit in a decade.

Da Liu nods sympathetically. Xiao Zhuang is the pride of the town. She is the only person from this town who has made it to one of the best universities in this country.

‘I know a place’ said Xiao Liu.

At dinner time, Xiao Liu drives them to a cottage near the ravine. Near the road, there is a sign that says ‘wild chicken feast’ next to a photo of a colourful bird. A crow perched on the eaves flies away when the car roars in.

They sit down. An old lady serves them tea. There is no menu on the table.

‘We only do chicken hotpot. Would you like it very spicy, medium spicy, or mild spicy?’

‘Very spicy,’ said Lao Zhuang.

The old lady retreats to the kitchen.

Half an hour later, a fragrant boiling dish is served in a polished copper pot. Chopped chicken with bones pops up and down in the rich brown broth strewn with red chilli peppers and coriander leaves.

Lao Zhuang lifts a piece of chicken with his chopsticks and sends it into his mouth. He chews carefully. After that, he selectively eats more vegetables than chicken.

After dinner, they take a stroll to visit the chicken coop. Under the dim yellow light, three striking chickens with iridescent sheen are resting in the coop. Lao Zhuang walks close and looks carefully at the chickens. The chickens stare back at Lao Zhuang.

Lao Zhuang’s face sinks.

‘What’s wrong?’ Asks Da Liu. ‘

This is a scam. They are not real wild chickens.’

‘How do you know?’

‘You see, when I look at them, and they look back at me, there is no suspicion, no disease or anger in their eyes. They are not afraid of me. They must be expecting me to feed them and caress them.’

Da Liu nods. He is impressed by Lao Zhuang’s knowledge.

‘This is not acceptable. I will go back to ask for a discount to get some of your money back.’ Xiao Liu is indignant.

‘No need to hold grudges. It is bad for business.’ Lao Zhuang pats Xiao Liu’s shoulder.

Xiao Liu scratches his head for a second and puts up his forefinger: ‘How about eel? Rice field eel is the best.’

‘Don’t you worry about the fertilisers and insecticides?’ Said Da Liu.

‘There is a way to deal with it. You leave them in clean water for three nights before cooking. It will clear out the toxin.’

The next day, Lao Zhuang goes to the market and buys a bucket of eels. He transfers the eels to a bigger bucket at home and adds clean water. He puts the lid back and leaves a small gap for air.

At night, Lao Zhuang’s wife wakes up from sleep to go to the bathroom. She screams when something clammy crawls onto her feet. Lao Zhuang is woken and rushes to the bathroom. He finds nothing suspicious and blames his wife for the false alert. Then he goes to check the basket. The lid is still on, but the bucket is empty. He realises the clammy thing that crawled onto his wife’s feet was the eel from the bucket. His wife dreads the clammy creatures wandering around and leaves home to stay with her parents. Lao Zhuang lies awake in bed waiting for the eels to return. But they never come back.

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