The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has just announced its 2010 shortlist
What was the main objective when the IPAF was founded in 2007? The main objective was to establish a literary prize that would really make a difference in a writer’s life and also a literary prize that would have enough power, credibility and authenticity to attract Arabic and international attention to contemporary Arabic literature. Unfortunately, this attention has been quite limited so far. But believing that there are wonderful books written in Arabic today, we felt that these books needed more attention and more exposure, whether in the Arab world or internationally and this is why this prize was born.
Is the prize’s main focus on the Arab world or on an international readership? I would say both because any major literary prize needs to have these two objectives at the same time. It doesn’t mean anything to promote an Arab author abroad if he is absent in the Arab world. So the priority was to promote the work in the Arab world, and the prize is doing that. All the publishers are saying that since the prize was born, all the books that are getting to the shortlist are seeing higher sales and greater attention. But this is not enough, because we are living in a world where discovering the other and knowing him is fundamental. So it was important to make these writings available to the international audience and to help them discover what is really going on in the Arab world, because most of what is perceived abroad is coming through the media, and it does not represent in an accurate way the reality of this part of this world. We believe that literature is the best bridge between cultures, so I think that both objectives are essential and they have to go together.
Arabic literature publishing is dwarfed by the might of European and American publishers. Do you see Arabic authors ever experiencing the kind of sales bestowed on successful English language books? We can only hope for that, aspire to that and work for that. I know that everybody is talking about how reading has become very secondary in our lives and that books are disappearing. And this is not something that is felt only in the Arab world, it is present everywhere. Of course, in this particular region of the world where people are facing so many problems, so many conflicts, it is even worse. I do hope that with time and with continuing effort to promote books and literature we are going to get to the point where an Arab author can become a bestselling author, like that in the Western world. The winner of the inaugural 2008 prize, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, is not widely known. Compare this to a Man Booker Prize winner and it seems the effect of winning the IPAF is minimal. What do you hope will be the effect of an author winning the prize this year? I don’t think it is fair to compare a winner of the IPAF to a winner of the Man Booker Prize. The Man Booker Prize has existed for 40 years now, it has built a great deal of importance and influence over the years. We do hope that, because of this association with the Book Prize Foundation and because of the support of the Emirates Foundation that we are going to get there one day, but it is unfair at this stage to compare the effect of the prizes on the winners. What I can tell you is that the effect of the IPAF on Bahaa Taher has been great. So many editions of his book have been published in the Arab world and he has had about eight or nine deals for translations, which is a great thing to say for any Arab author.
A lot of the authors on the long list come from countries where there is restricted freedom of expression. Does the prize in any way address this? Well, what I can tell you is that when the judging panel chooses the long-listed titles it is only the literary criteria that they take into account. They do not say, last year we had too many books from that country so we have to make a balance this year. All these non-literary criteria are never taken into account. Regarding the restricted freedom of expression, many of the books published, even from Arab countries where there is restricted freedom of expression, are published in countries where there is a much better level of freedom of expression. Many publishers of the Arab literature are based in Beirut, for example, so many writers who cannot publish in their own country come and publish in Beirut.
So there is a good level of freedom of speech in Lebanon? Well, let’s not idealise it, it is the least worst in the Arab world.
Naguib Mafouz was the first writer in Arabic to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Who would you place a bet on to be the second? Well, unfortunately, I would say none, and it is not because there is a lack of deserving authors. The Nobel Prize has always been, I believe, linked to political and social criteria, particularly in the Arab world. I don’t think I would place my bets on an Arab author. I would love to see an Arab poet win the prize, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems unfair that just one Arab author has won the prize so far after 100 years, and secondly it seems that poetry is always secondary in the Nobel Prize, so it would be great to have both criteria in one person. See overleaf for extended coverage of the shortlist. For more information about the IPAF, visit www.arabicfiction.org. For more information about Joumana Haddad, visit www.joumanahaddad.org.