Orange Prize Speech Excerpt

The Lizard Cage has WON the U.K.'s Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers.  The award was presented to Karen Connelly at the offical Orange Broadband Prize ceremony in London on June 6th, 2007.


June 13, 2007

It was fascinating to attend an English awards ceremony. It was very different from another big bash that was going on a few hours later in Toronto, the Griffin Poetry Prize party, which is funded and thrown privately by the wealthy and literarily-inclined Scott and Christine Griffin.

Being humble and Canadian, I somehow envisioned a British gala event that would show Canadians how it was done. But I could handle a British party. The staging was  simple but elegant in the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, the crowd variously dressed--from jeans and tops to a few dresses and suits--the announcer Kate Mosse (not Kate Moss) was dressed quite slinkily and very fast-talking. Everyone who spoke on stage spoke very quickly, as if the speaker were interrupting the revellers and felt apologetic, perhaps a tad embarrassed about it. 

I realized with quiet amazement that Canadians are slow talkers. Perhaps ponderous? God, I hope I wasn’t .  . . What we have to say might actually take five whole minutes to get out of our mouths. And we encourage writers and poets to talk. No wonder foreign writers seem to love Canada: they are encouraged to make and praised for making good speeches. Possibly this is because we think they may say something more profound than Canadian writers will. I remember Simon Armitage's great, funny speech at the Griffin last year, and August' Kleinswahler' s  the year before that. 

 But in London  I had the feeling that talking too much or too slowly in public is considered gauche, or at least unnecessary. Why talk when there are cheques to give away and fags to smoke and champagne to quaff? 

The wonderful Jackie Kay who was a judge for the ONW gave a quick rundown of the shortlisted novels, ending with The Lizard Cage, which she said simply blew away the judges, and that was why it won, and hopefully this win would send many many readers to the book and there were whoops of glory--mostly from my  friends and a handful of Harvill Secker people (the people who published the book),  and then I wiggled my way through the crowd, walked up onto stage, got my enormous magnum of champagne.  The announcer handed me some flowers and made to usher me off the stage.

But - -  But - -  I’d spent a couple hours composing an acceptance and thank you speech, just in case I won the prize. I would have thought that was to be expected. Especially here in Britain, where everyone is so polite. (At least that is the prevailing cultural cliché about Brits.)

“Excuse me, may I just say a few words?” I asked Kate, who looked taken aback. She frowned. I know it’s frightening when someone changes the stage plan out of turn. But I flew all the way in fromToronto for the award ceremony. It seemed a far way to come and not even say thank you.

Kate nervously ceded the microphone to me, shrugging her shoulders at a fellow organizer offstage as if to say “What can I do? She’s a foreigner; they talk.”  And I talked.. I could see that while some of the audience was listening to me, a lot of people were wondering what the hell I was doing, speeching for three whole minutes, about ---What? Former political prisoners from Burma? How depressing is that? Could someone turn off the mike so we could have a few more drinks?

But I said my little piece anyway, and I’m glad I did, and I’m more than happy to repeat it a bit of it here:

“Right now in Canada, one discussion among intellectuals and writers concerns whether or not anyone will read our books, any books, Austen’s or Eliots or Dickens books, in fifty or one hundred years. More and more of our young people, while functionally literate, have appallingly low reading comprehension, and our education system is failing to make reading vital and interesting enough to compete with the new media that have enamoured our youth

That is why I find this award truly inspiring. How wonderful that Orange Broadband, which specializes in cell phone technology—that now ubiquitous piece of global technology--sponsors not one but two major awards for the old, humble, deliciously sensual piece of localized technology, the book. I suspect that in the future the old book is going to need more of that kind of help from its younger flashier advertising-savvy siblings, and I am very grateful to Orange Broadband for recognizing this, and for honouring not only my work, but the work of so many other women writers.

One of the themes of the Lizard Cage is the incalculable importance of reading and writing. The irony of our world is that while intellectuals and educators in the West are desperately trying to get people to read, there are also thousands and thousands of men and women in other parts of the world,  imprisoned for political reasons, who are much much more desperately trying to get their hands on books and paper and pens, and are willing to risk their lives to write down a few dozen words. That is a human hunger that will never go away, despite the vicissitudes of technology: the ferocious hunger to tell the story, to let words remain behind, even if the body is destroyed, so that language itself can act as a witness, a judge, even a form of justice. Words written behind the prison wall have a better chance of escaping than the human hands that write them down.

I would like to thank a few of the brave individuals who have escaped Burmese prisons and work camps. I would like to remember and honour them now, for without their help, I would not have been able to write The Lizard Cage. Aung San Suu Kyi is the most famous of these people, but there is also Daw Amar, Tin Mo, Aung Zaw, Mun Awng, Kyaw Zwa Moe, Zaw Zaw Htun, Moe Thi Zon, Min Oo, and many others still in Burma, who best remain nameless. Someday, I hope I will have a chance to speak their names publicly.” 

END OF SPEECH>  taaa-daaaa. deep bow. pirouette. curtsey. sound of champagne corks popping, etc.

Hopefully, that will day will come soon. 

I thank the judges again for making the choice they did, to Orange Broadband and to the British Arts Council for funding the prize of ten thousand pounds. 

I am so pleased for the book, and for Burma, too.