Monday, July 09, 2012

International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in spotlight at London Lit Festival

 (L to R) Jonathan Wright, Maudie Bitar and Paul Blezard

What impact has the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF - also known as the Arabic Booker Prize) had on Arabic literature since its launch five years ago? And how has the prize influenced Arabic literary translation? Such questions were to the fore during an event held on Friday evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival.I

The event was originally intended to celebrate Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber's winning of this year's IPAF in Abu Dhabi in March. Jaber had been expected to travel to London to discuss his work and to read from his prizewinning novel The Druze of Belgrade. But the author, who is notably publicity-shy, decided for one reason or another not to attend and the event was re-jigged as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the inception of IPAF in Abu Dhabi in 2007.

IPAF is worth $60,000 to the winner, comprising $50,000 plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted authors. the prize is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London, and has up to now been funded by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation; funding is now being taken over by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

In his absence, Rabee Jaber was saluted through the reading in the original Arabic of an excerpt from The Druze of Belgrade by IPAF Trustee Professor Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih, a panellist at the event. The excerpt is published in the Arabic original, and in English translation, by Nancy Roberts in  the IPAF publication Excerpts from the Shortlist 2012, copies of which were distributed at the event. Abdel-Messih is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cairo, currently on secondment to the University of Kuwait. Her books include  A Transcultural Reading of Literature, and National Culture: Global or International Options. She has been a judge for the State Fiction and Arts Prizes, the Writer’s Union Fiction Prize and the Sawiris Fiction Prize.

IPAF's Arabic-English publication carrying excerpts from the 2012 shortlist

One of Abdel-Messih's co-panellists was the Lebanese journalist and literary critic Maudie Bitar who writes a column on Western literature for Al-Hayat newspaper: she was among the five judges of IPAF 2012. The third panellist was journalist and translator Jonathan Wright, whose translation into English of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan's 2009 IPAF winner Azazeel was published in April by Atlantic Books. Azazeel is the choice of book for the next meeting of the Banipal Book Club, to be held on 26 July at the Arab British Centre in London (Both Azazeel and Wright's translation of Lebanese writer and publisher Rasha al Ameer's novel Judgment Day - American University in Cairo Press, 2011 - have been entered for the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation).

Chair of the event was writer and broadcaster Paul Blezard, Literary Director of Firebird Poetry Prizes and former literary editor of the Lady magazine. Blezard has chaired events at myriad literary festivals including the Emirates Airline Literary Festival in Dubai.

 Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih

Asked by Blezard about the significance of IPAF, Wright thought it had made a difference in two main ways. "Firstly, it is transnational – most prizes before that have tended to be national prizes within specific countries. The Arab book market is still very fragmented nationally, so to some extent it’s contributed to breaking down those barriers.

“But the biggest difference has simply been the amount of money involved. It’s $60,000 – by the standards of the Arab literary market that’s a large amount of money. So it’s a massive incentive for people to cultural production generally." The size of the prize has also attracted much attention to the winners and to the other shortlisted books. In addition, IPAF "helps people who report on literature to get a sort of framework in which to place the various books that are coming out. That also counts very much with the foreign market because one unusual feature of IPAF - which is slightly controversial in my view - is the provision that the winner of the prize is automatically translated into English and inevitably finds a publisher in English.”

What is controversial about the winning novel's guaranteed translation into English? Wright said: “It is anomalous, I don’t think other prizes in other parts of the world would contain such a provision. So I think it’s a reflection of the imbalance between Western cultural production and Arab cultural production and it reflects the sort of power relationship between the two worlds.”

Asked whether he sees IPAF as a force for good, Wright answered: “In many ways I think it’s good that people should be reading more Arabic literature in translation, but it may be having some adverse side effects by skewing the type of production you’re getting from within the Arab world. I don’t think you’ve actually seen much evidence that this has happened yet but there’s always the possibility that Arab authors might end up or might find an incentive to produce for a Western audience and give preference to a possible Western audience out there.”

When Maudie Bitar interjected “what’s wrong with that?” Wright said: “I’m not sure there’s anything necessarily wrong with it but it seems a little odd to me that people should be writing in one language and primarily addressing themselves to readers of another language."

Wright added that while he didn't know that there's proof of Arab novelists writing for a Western audience, "there has been an increase in the number of books written which address themes of cultural encounter – themes of migration, and contact with the outside world. Now maybe this is a healthy development, which merely reflects the reality of the way Arabs live. Because the outside world is very much part of their lives in many ways - not just through television but through travel, through bombs falling on them or whatever. I mean it’s just a question that should be considered and discussed. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad but it’s certainly interesting.”

Blezard asked Bitar if there is evidence that Arab writers are writing purely to win IPAF, and in order to get a Western audience. Bitar said translation is one of the benefits of IPAF "and if indeed there are writers who are writing towards translation and being published in the Western world I don’t see anything wrong with that." She said that the East and West, as a result of factors such as immigration, have much in common regarding the human condition and experiences: "Maybe the exotic element, the ethnic nature, that people used to look for in One Thousand and One Nights doesn't exist any more." 

Bitar added: "There are a lot of Arabs who live in the West and although sometimes they try to maintain basic aspects of their culture they become different, whether they like it or not. So there is a universal element here and I think what makes IPAF different from other awards is the fact that the winner, and sometimes other authors on the shortlist, are being translated into one or more European languages. I think that’s a very positive thing which should be encouraged, and I do hope that people in the Arab world keep sponsoring this prize because it means a lot to Arab writers to be recognised and to find a bigger audience worldwide."

Abdel-Messih stressed the past and present cosmopolitanism of the Arabs. These days writers, no matter where they are in the world, do not write "from a strictly ethnic point of view. If somebody is living in the present he cannot be divorced from the cosmopolitan, and from what is going on in the world." The Arabs cannot be viewed as people who live in tents and know nothing about the West. "Most Arab nations were cosmopolitan all through – just look at the Mediterranean basin, at Egypt and the Levant and Tunisia and all these countries, they were always in association with the West ... think of the culture of Alexandria." 

Wright denined none of this, and said "let’s face it, the very concept of the novel is undoubtedly derivative from European literature. I don’t think the novel would have evolved in the Arab world in the way it has without European influence." Abdel-Massih added: "And it is inconceivable to look at the European novel without remembering Cervantes, without remembering Andalucian literature."

Wright is "not sure that Arab novelists when they try to introduce European or American characters are as successful as they are when they are dealing with Arab characters. And I think the same works in reverse; I don’t think that Europeans when they are dealing with Arab characters are very successful either." He added: "Although I don’t have any problem with them trying I think the reality is that they don’t do it very well generally, at least many of them don’t."

 Youssef Ziedan's 2009 IPAF-winning novel Azazeel translated by Jonathan Wright

Blezard asked Bitar about the judging process. "There are several criteria; you have to take into consideration the insight, the range of the narrative, the building of the characters, the way the narrative progresses," she said. "You take all these into consideration - but in the end it is subjective. During the discussions some of us thought that the fluidity of the language was a criterion enough to consider a novelist a winner or not. There are really many factors."

Blezard invited Bitar to lift a curtain on the judging room: how heated is the debate? Bitar noted that press coverage had suggested that in one or two years of IPAF the judges' deliberations were heated "but  we were very civilised this year, maybe because there were three women. The judges were chaired by the esteemed Syrian intellectual Georges Tarabichi and he really was a very good chair."

The controversy in a previous year to which Bitar alluded came  when the 2010 shortlist was announced . (One of the judges, Egyptian Shereen Abou El-Naga of Cairo University, resigned the day after the shortlist was announced. She was quoted as blaming the voting system and a lack of dialogue or debate - although the Kuwaiti chairman of the judges novelist and short story writer Taleb Al-Refai refuted such allegations.)

Abdel-Messih said "we do our best to have no leakage" of the judges' deliberations: "that’s why the judges are secret, nobody knows their identity until the shortlist." Keeping the identities secret is also  aimed at preventing the judges being pressurised by any quarter.

Two of the shortlisted authors - Rabee Jaber and Tunisian Habib Selmi (shortlisted for The Women of Bassatin) had been shortlisted in previous years. Blezard asked whether the judges view previously shortlisted writers, who might narrowly have missed winning, "with more charity". Bitar said “No not really – you have in the end to agree on one of them. You have your first choice,  your second choice... We gave marks to every one of them." In the end the judges had to discuss, and reach a consensus.

Bitar said the 2012 judges had first met in Paris to decide the longlist, which was supposed to be 16 novels.  "It was difficult for us to select 16 novels so we settled for 13, and I was really happy with the shortlist - although there was one novel - I cannot of course say what it was and who wrote it - that was good enough to be on the shortlist but it was eliminated in the first process" When Blezard asked why this was, Bitar said she thought the judges "should have more time to read more carefully."

Blezard noted that in  Georges Tarabichi's introduction to IPAF book of excerpts from the 2012 shortlist, he writes that the judges had to read over 100 novels in less than four months. Blezard said he does that every year himself - "I’ve read a book a day for the last 10 years, Georges obviously has a life - I don’t!"

Bitar said: " It depends on whether you have enough time to read, and how you view a novel and what you want from it, and in the end you have to agree on one novel whether it was your first choice or not." Blezard said it is a charge often  levelled at literary prizes that it is not the best novel that wins but the one that all the judges can agree upon. Does the same hold true for IPAF? Bitar replied: "I think most of the IPAF winners were worthy ones, not all of them." But she declined to be specific.

Wright thought the prize had been very effective and had several benefits: "It’s focused minds, both domestically in the Arab world and abroad, on specific works, given them a lot of attention, and there have been spinoffs in that the short list and longlist also get masses of attention, and it’s noticeable that publishers have been picking up on translations of those books. Many of the shortlisted books were published too."

Blezard remarked that "those of us in the West who read Arab literature in translation now tend to see it through the prism of IPAF and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP)." He asked Wright:"Do you think we are only getting a fine detail of Arabic fiction and there’s a much broader spectrum than we may be aware of, because we only see it through this small window?"

Wright said there has been much debate on the selection of Arabic literature for translation, and the  possible flaws of this process. "Who is doing the choosing, which books get translated, is it a representative or wise selection? The argument has been round and round in circles." In his view "there are a lot of people involved in the selection process so it’s probably as good as it’s going to be – the more people who take part in that process the better, and IPAF has added another element to that mix, so it can only be beneficial."

There was some discussion on the rules for the submission by publishers of books for IPAF. Each publisher may submit three novels - but if one of these is by an author who has been shortlisted for IPAF in a previous year, the publisher may submit an extra novel. The aim is to increase the chances of submissions of emerging writers, who might otherwise be squeezed out at the submission stage by those with previous form in terms of making the shortlist. The judges have the right to call in a novel that has not been submitted by its publisher.

Maudie Bitar

Bitar suggested that IPAF judges should be asked  not only to pick the winner, but also to nominate other shortlisted novels for translation. "It is not fair only for the winner to be translated", especially because it is not the best novel that wins every year. "Sometimes there is more than one fine novel on the shortlist," - from the shortlist of six "there should be at least three fine novels".

Blezard asked Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih about her interest  in the strands of Arabic writing that are coming through this prize, particularly the strand  focusing on estrangement and belonging. 

Abdel-Messih said: “Most of the novels, I think, express existential conflicts." She pointed out that themes of belonging do not always arise in the context of an Arab-West divide and whether or  not an Arab belongs to the West.  "For instance The Druze of Belgrade which won IPAF this year is about how conflicts between different ethnicities and religious sects in one Arab society can lead to this idea of estrangement and 'not belonging'. It’s not only a matter of East-West relations but also inter-Arab relations between different communities. Arabs are not one community: there are so many different communities that are sometimes are not very well related.".

She added that the issues are becoming magnified nowadays for political reasons, "not only because political reasons lead to migration, but also the disapora is not a condition of being in another country – you can feel an exile, an outsider, a stranger in your own country. It is one of the most common themes dealt with in these novels, and I think this is what one binds them together."

She gave as an example Algerian writer Bachir Mefti's novel  Toy of Fire shortlisted for IPAF 2012. It has "the idea of estrangement in his own society – due to censorship, paternalism, sexual frustration, and the practices of the police state."

Paul Blezard

A member of the audience wanted to know whether the panellists have in the past five years seen a  difference in the quality of the literature emerging in the Arab world. Abdel-Massih said there has "always been very good writing in Arabic", but "perhaps we have got to see new modes of writing". In addition,  "perhaps we as Arabs, because of censorship and politics, are not able to read other Arabs. So IPAF also enabled us to read each other, and to know more about each other."

Wright thought there had been an improvement in quality. "I’m not well enough read to be absolutely definitive on this... but the incentives are there, and there are more young people who are trying their hand at writing. Inevitably it may take a while really for this to feed through but I think there are signs of that already."

Bitar thought quality had increased: "The way Arab writers are practising their craft is different, the language is less lyrical - except maybe in the Gulf - and it’s becoming more minimalist and we don’t see as much excess language as we used to."

Wright agreed that the lanaguage has become "much more succinct, much more to the point." The Arabic novel he is translating now "reads like James Bond". When Blezard commented "I thought you said there’s an improvement in quality!" Wright noted that Bond author Ian Fleming "was a master of style".

On the question of what Western audiences want, or are perceived to want, from Arab fiction Wright said "I don’t think there’s any simple answer to that, I think they’re actually quite willing and quite open to quality, and quality can come in many different guises. Clearly the most successful book is Alaa Aswany’s book The Yacoubian Building which, interestingly is not a book which addresses the outside world at all, it’s a completely enclosed Egyptian world."

There was disagreement among the panellists on the reasons for the success of The Yacoubian Building in the West. In Wright's view "The secret of his success is that Aswany is a very good story story teller – his characters are plausible, and there’s a good pace. In structure it is very much a traditional almost Victorian novel it has a beginning and an end and people go through the motions.”

Bitar suggested the novel's succcess in the West was due to its containing what the West wants from Arabic fiction. "Almost 25 years after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel prize, we have almost forgotten him and the real star is Al Aswany with The Yacoubian Building and what he writes about is maybe what the reader in the West is looking for – it’s about homosexuality, corruption, fundamentalism, terrorism, sex outside marriage ..."

Wright thought "that’s a little unfair if I may say so. These are facts of life, I don’t think it’s a gross misrepresentation of reality."

Abdel-Massih thought "the success of Alaa al Aswany really goes to his translator - I’m sure of that, because when you read Alaa al Aswany in Arabic, his language is really flat." But, adding that he's populist, she said "I think we owe him gratitude for raising a new readership, we are grateful to him for that."

Abdul-Massih said intellectuals don't accept al Aswany "because of his language - you can't savour what he writes" prompting Blezard to wonder whether there is a culturel difference in that "Arabic readers expect Arabic novelists to be intellectual whereas Western readers rather hope for a populist storyteller who is successful." In Britain, "more people buy Dan Brown than buy Julian Barnes."

Wright pointed out that the reading public in the Arab world has been extremely small, and what was available was mainly pretentious literary works, "but the emergence of more popular literature has opened up a new field for marketing". When Blezard asked “is there an Arabic readership for Arabic popular literature?" Wright pointed out that Arabs "used to read  Agatha Christie in translation, all kinds of translated stuff – and Dan Brown  is large numbers."

Bitar asked: “Is the European or American reader interested in having someone talking about the same experiences that we have as human beings, are they interested in reading about them from a different kind of perspective, or do they want to be tourists and read about an exotic place or a different ethnic group?" She wondered if we have any idea about the sort of circulation that Arab writers have here in Britain.”

Blezard redirected her question to Andy Smart consultant publisher of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which is "growing day by day – you have six new publications coming out in the next few months - what sort of circulations do you get?"

Andy Smart said it was interesting that the biggest-selling BQFP books are original works in Arabic. The new  Ibrahim Issa book is for example into its second printing in two months, which means over 3,000 copies. BQFP has ventured into translating popular genre fiction, such as books by two Egyptian authors: Ahmed Khaled Towfik's science fiction novel Utopia and Ahmed Mourad's thriller Vertigo. Of Utopia, Smart said  "it’s hard to break a new novelist through the English reading market ,but it has attracted good attention."

In addition to its activities around the prize itself, IPAF has been holding Nadwas or workshops in the UAE annually since 2009. “The concept of the Nadwa is to encourage emerging writers” Abdel-Messih said. “Usually they are selected from different parts of the Arab world. There are two mentors - writers who advise them all through and discuss what they are writing. What they write at the end of the Nadwa is published and translated.” The third Nadwa was held last October.

Asked by Blezard if this is the first workshop of its kind in the Arab world, Abdel-Maassih said there have been for some time several one-country workshops in for example Egypt and Lebanon.

One intriguing question that cropped up during the event was whether IPAF would be open to a non-Arab writing in Arabic. Bitar said “I don’t know whether they have to be Arabs.” Wright said: “If somebody who was non-Arab managed to write in Arabic, which is quite a feat, then they would be welcomed – Arab is a linguistic term anyway."

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

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