Iraqi Hassan Blasim is first Arab winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
For the first time in its 24-year history, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been won by an Arab writer – Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, for his second short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. This is also the first time a short story collection has been victorious.
Blasim and Wright share the £10,000 Prize, which they received at Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014 ceremony supported by Champagne Taittinger at the Royal Institute of British Architects this evening.
Hassan Blasim [c) Tomas Whitehouse]
The Iraqi Christ combines reportage, memoir and dark fantasy to present Iraq, post-Saddam and post-invasion, as a surrealist inferno. From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim’s stories blend the fantastic with the everyday. The Iraqi Christ offers an unforgettable and often harrowing insight into life in contemporary Iraq.
Blasim, described by Syrian writer, activist and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab in the Guardian newspaper as ‘perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’, also won an English PEN translation award for The Iraqi Christ. In December 2012 Hassan Blasim and Jonathan Wright appeared in an event at the Mosaic Rooms, London to discuss The Iraqi Christ with English PEN director Jo Glanville.
He has much from his own life experience to draw from. He originally made films in his native Iraq, having to adopt a pseudonym and leave Baghdad for Kurdistan in northern Iraq to avoid persecution. In 2000 he fled Iraq completely, travelling as an illegal migrant for four years through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia before finally settling in Finland with the help of a friend.
The Iraqi Christ has yet to be published in its original Arabic. Blasim’s previous book, The Madman of Freedom Square, which was longlisted for this Prize in 2010, was published in a censored version in Arabic three years after its original publication in English by Manchester-based independent publisher Comma Press – but even then this was quickly banned in Jordan and many other Arab countries.
Jonthan Wright and Hassan Blasim at the Mosaic Rooms, London, December 2012
Jonathan Wright, translator of The Iraqi Christ, studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.
Blasim and Wright will be appearing in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, judge and Senior Writer and Columnist, The Independent at an event at the Hay Festival at 9.00am on Saturday 24 May.
This year the judges also wanted to give a special mention to The Mussel Feast, the debut novel by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by fellow independent pubilsher Peirene Press.
This modern German classic first appeared in 1990 but is now published in English for the first time. Set around a family dinner The Mussel Feast lifts the lid on the trauma and pain that World War II left on ordinary German families and is described by judge Nadifa Mohamed as, ‘a tiny book that leaves a strong impression’.
Judge Boyd Tonkin said of the winner:
‘A decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country’s writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence. Among them, Hassan Blasim stands out for his fearless candour and rule-busting artistry.
'The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth, depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life. Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic captures all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy. The Iraqi Christ is not only the first Arabic book to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but a classic work of post-war witness, mourning and revolt.’
Antonia ByattAntonia Byatt, Director, Literature, Arts Council England, added:
‘The Iraqi Christ is an intriguing collection, with unforgettable images, unexpected narrative perspectives and links between stories which urge you to revisit the previous tale even as you read on. The boldness and energy of Hassan Blasim’s prose is expertly conveyed by Jonathan Wright’s translation. Many congratulations to both the author and the translator and to Comma Press, regularly funded by Arts Council England, for publishing the collection.
'It is exciting to see the range of languages widening with each successive winner of the prize, with an Arabic title winning for the first time. Translation is hugely important to our literary culture – as is short fiction – and Arts Council England is delighted to support the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which brings to UK readers the finest fiction from around the world.’
In a year with record entries for the Prize (126 titles from 30 source languages), Blasim fought off challenges from a prestigious shortlist including Karl Ove Knausgaard’s blockbuster A Man In Love, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker) and Prix de Médicis laureate Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Portobello Books).
The 2014 shortlist also featured two Japanese women writers for the first time: Yoko Ogawa, author of Revenge, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker), and Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (Portobello Books).
Previous winners of the Prize include Milan Kundera in 1991 for Immortality, translated by Peter Kussi; W G Sebald and translator Anthea Bell in 2002 for Austerlitz; and Per Petterson and translator Anne Born in 2006 for Out Stealing Horses. The 2013 winner was Gerbrand Bakker for The Detour translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.
The judges for this year’s Prize are:
Alev Adil, Artist in Residence, Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader for MA Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich
British writer, broadcaster and former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes
Nadifa Mohamed, award-winning author
Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer and Columnist, The Independent
Literary translator Shaun Whiteside
The £10,000 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is awarded annually to the best work of contemporary fiction in translation. The 2014 Prize celebrates an exceptional work of fiction by a living author which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom in 2013.
Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize acknowledges both the writer and the translator equally – each receives £5,000 – recognising the importance of the translator in their ability to bridge the gap between languages and cultures. The Prize is funded by Arts Council England, managed by Booktrust and supported by The Independent and Champagne Taittinger.
The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ran initially between 1990 and 1995, and was then revived with the support of Arts Council England in 2000. The Prize money and associated costs are funded by Arts Council England, and supported by The Independent and Champagne Taittinger.
About the 2014 winners:
Hassan Blasim is a poet, filmmaker and short story writer. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he grew up in Kirkuk and studied at Baghdad's Academy of Cinematic Arts. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan) in order to continue to make films that were critical of the Hussein dictatorship, using the Kurdish pseudonym Ouazad Osman (Hussein had government spies even in his university). In 2004, he moved to Finland, where he currently lives. His debut collection The Madman of Freedom Square was published by Comma in 2009 and longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010. Next month, a theatre adaptation of Blasim’s short story ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’ by Rashid Razaq is being staged at the Arcola Theatre in London.
Jonathan Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University in the 1970s and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. His first major literary translation was of Khaled el-Khamissi's best-selling book Taxi, published in English by Aflame Books in 2008. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.
The funder, manager and supporters of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize:
Booktrust is an independent charity that changes lives through reading. It has a vision of a society where nobody misses out on the life-changing benefits that reading can bring. Booktrust is responsible for a number of successful national reading promotions, sponsored book prizes and creative reading projects aimed at encouraging readers to discover and enjoy books.
These include the BBC National Short Story Award, the Booktrust Best Book Awards with Amazon Kindle, and Bookstart, the national programme that works through locally based organisations to give a free pack of books to babies and toddlers, with guidance materials for parents and carers. www.booktrust.org.uk
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