We all choose what we read through different channels, but the role literary prizes play in this matter can’t be denied. Their diversity helps us choose from big names to first-timers, from different genres and different topics. Their independence and the judges’ reputations gives assurance that the selection process is as fair as possible. When I read in English, there is an endless recommendation list I can refer to. But it is not quite the case when I go to my own language, Persian. The reason is not the lack of good books but there is always a powerful force in Iran to downgrade good books and misguide you about what you should read. Control over your knowledge that overshadows the choices you make.

Over the past forty years, the publishing industry’s first and worst challenge has been censorship: the long and frustrating process every book must go through to attain an official permission to be published. So, one might assume after this step, books can have a free life to be promoted and distributed equally. You are wrong.

It’s not only books that are under severe surveillance. Every related activity is monitored closely by the State. It took almost two decades after the Islamic revolution, for independent literary prizes to emerge. Hooshang Golshiri Award, Mehregan, Bahram Sadeqi and Roozi Roozegari award are the most prominent awards among many others. The early years of the 2000s looked very hopeful and bright for Iranian awards to thrive. However, their only challenge was not choosing the best works. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance with the help of security forces did whatever they could to stop them. They put pressure on judges and organizers, threatened them and their families. They also made venues cancel award ceremonies on the day on many occasions to defuse what in their opinion, was an activity against their policies: promoting books that are not in line with their values and ideology.

The Hooshang Golshiri award, the most prestigious independent award in Iran, finally stopped in 2014 after 14 years of harassment and intimidation. The award focused on modern contemporary Iranian literature. It was named in honor of Hooshang Golshiri, one of the most distinguished pioneers of Iranian modern fiction, who died in 2000. The first award was given in 2001.
Some of the awards perished. A handful of them remained trying hard to keep a low profile far from the State’s radar. Some took refuge in cyber space to keep their award. From submissions to judgment, to winner announcements, everything is done online. Even online awards could not get away with it, though, an example being the Bahram Sadeghi Award that is also named after a modernist fiction writer, which was suspended for 12 years and just resumed in 2013.

One of the most successful awards – and the oldest – that has survived for almost 20 years is the Mehregan award. Mehregan is the only independent award in Iran that has science and environment categories in addition to fiction and children. They dodged the bullets so many times. Some years they had to postpone the award due to the threats and pressure and as a result they held it every two years. But despite ups and downs, they still show no no sign of giving in.

Last year Alireza Zargar, director of the Mehregan award, announced that for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran they were adding a new category: Mehregan for books published outside Iran. This unprecedented news was surprising and thrilling. Forty years’ worth of exiled Iranian authors wrote and published in Europe and the US, far from their main audience, with little hope to be read, recognised and praised. Their books are considered illegal inside the country. Although it blew a wind of hope into the silent houses of exiled authors, no one can dismiss the fact that Iranian authorities are not likely to allow this easily.

In an interview with Mehr News Agency in July 2019, Mr Zargar defends the idea of considering exiled Persian literature in Iran literary competitions. He points out that many distinguished authors like James Joyce, Nabakov and Milan Kundera created their masterpieces in exile and we are missing out by ignoring them. He adds that he is determined to proceed with this new category although he has been warned by the authorities!

Contrary to all the obstacles independent literary awards encounter in Iran, state-owned awards seem to work smoothly with sufficient funds and promotional opportunities in any form and media, although with minimum effect on the industry and market. The oldest state award is the Islamic Republic of Iran National Award started in 1998. It covers a vast range of books: religion, social science, history, science, art, language and fiction. There has always been controversy about its judgments and selection processes.

The most important rival for independent awards is a state award particularly formed for fiction works that started in 2008 – in the midst of the darkest period for culture in Iran under the hardline government. The Jalal Al-Ahmad award is named after another prominent writer, translator and socio-political critic who is known for being a critique of the west and is supported by Iran’s leaders. The award guidelines say: “The aim of this award is to promote the language and the national-religious literature.”

Initially the Jalal Al-Ahmad award had a substantial cash prize of 110 golden coins (approximately USD 30,000) rated the most expensive literary award of Iran. However, due to high inflation and the free fall of Iran’s currency, they reduced the prize to 30 golden coins (approximately USD 11,000) from the ninth round. Still, no independent award can compete with that size of cash prize. However expensive and glamorous it might look, run by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance doesn’t bring the credibility it needs among the literary community.

At the end of the day, a healthy and thriving publishing industry needs pillars to stand tall. Independent literary awards not only promote books and put authors/publishers under spotlight – meaning better business – but also promote reading in society, introduce top authors to other cultures and languages and encourage newcomers. Iran’s publishing is struggling in all of the above areas but the State persists on silencing other voices that don’t necessarily approve of their ideology. I salute Independent literary awards in Iran. I wish I could reward them for their persistence and tolerance.