Wednesday, May 06, 2015

debut novel inspired by the Arab Spring wins IPAF for Tunisian writer Shukri Mabkhout

The Italian by Tunisian author Shukri Mabkhout wins 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 

statement issued by IPAF:
The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout was tonight announced as the winner of the eighth International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The novel,  published by Dar Tanweer Tunis, was named winner by this year’s Chair of Judges, award-winning Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi. In addition to winning $50,000 - plus the $10,000 that goes to each shortlisted writer - Shukri Mabkhout is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as an expected increase in book sales and international recognition. The announcement took place on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The Prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi).

Shukri Mabkhout

Set in Tunis, The Italian tells the story of Abdel Nasser, nicknamed ‘the Italian’ due to his good looks. Against the backdrop of the protagonist’s political and amatory exploits, the book sheds light on Tunisia’s recent complex history, in particular the troubled transition from the Bourguiba era to the government of Ben Ali in the late 1980s.

In a recent interview, Mabkhout told how he was inspired to write the novel by the events of the Arab Spring: ‘Two years into the revolution... I remembered a recent period of Tunisia’s history that is similar in its fears, changes and conflicts to what I was witnessing and living: it was the period of transition from the reign of Bourguiba to that of Ben Ali following the 1987 coup.’

Mabkhout, who has just turned 53, was born in Tunis in 1962 and currently resides there, where he is President of Manouba University. A well-known academic and intellectual, he has written several works of literary criticism, but this is his first novel. The Italian was selected as the best work of fiction published within the last 12 months, selected from 180 entries from 15 countries across the Arab World.

Mourid Barghouti (credit Peter Everard Smith)

On behalf of the 2015 judging panel, Mourid Barghouti comments: ‘The whole of Shukri Mabkhout's debut novel is as astonishing as its first chapter: piquing the reader’s interest through a mysterious event in the opening scene, the book gradually reveals the troubled history of its characters and a particular period in Tunisia’s history. The hero, Abdel Nasser, is complex and multi-faceted and even the minor characters are convincing and we believe the logic of their actions. However, his most striking creation is that of Zina, Abdel Nasser’s wife: skilfully rendered as a blend of confidence and diffidence; harshness and love; strength and fragility. She is a highly individual character who, rather than being pre-conceived, clearly developed during the act of writing.

‘The novel brilliantly depicts the unrest both of the small world of its characters and the larger one of the nation, as well as exploring themes of personal desire, the establishment, violation and opportunism. Whilst it lifts the lid on Tunisian society, the book may also surprise many of its Arab readers who may recognise aspects of their societies in its pages too. Gripping the read from the first line to the last, The Italian is a work of art and an important contribution to Tunisian, and Arab, literary fiction.’

The five other shortlisted finalists were also honoured at the ceremony, and each received  $10,000. The shortlisted titles were A Suspended Life (Al-Ahlia) by Palestinian Atef Abu Saif;  Floor 99 (Difaf Publications) by Jana ElHassan of Lebanon;  Diamonds and Women (Dar al-Adab) by Lina Hawyan Elhassan of Syria; Willow Alley (Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi) by Ahmed el-Madini of Morocco and The Longing of the Dervish (Dar al-Ain) by Hammour Ziada of Sudan.

The shortlist was announced by the judging panel in February at a press conference at the Royal Mansour Hotel, Casablanca, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of Morocco and the Casablanca International Book Fair.  In addition to Mourid Barghouti, the judges were Ayman A. El-Desouky, an Egyptian academic, lecturer on Modern Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS; Parween Habib, a poet, critic, and media expert; Najim A. Kadhim, an Iraqi critic and academic, Professor of Comparative Literature at Baghdad University; and Kaoru Yamamoto, a Japanese academic, translator and researcher.

Yasir Suleiman

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, comments: ‘The Italian is an accomplished novel. It never lets go of the reader who willingly follows its intriguing characters on their converging and diverging journeys through a world full of incremental surprises. Set in Tunis in the second half of the twentieth century, the novel meanders in multiple directions to create a complex picture of a world that resonates in the present.

'Mabkhout is a master of suspense. He does so in standard Arabic that is full of vitality and pathos, thereby defying the unfair criticism that the Arabic language is a bookish and fossilised mode of expression at odds with the modern world. Mabkhout is not only a great narrator; he is also a master of an elevated language that breathes life into every word he pens.’

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize has guaranteed English translations for all of its winners - 2008- Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher (Egypt): 2009 - Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Egypt); 2010 - Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles by Abdo Khal (Saudi Arabia): 2011- The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (Morocco) and The Doves' Necklace by Raja Alem (Saudi Arabia): 2012 - The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber (Lebanon): 2013 - The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait): 2014 - Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq).

Since 2008, the winning and shortlisted IPAF books have been translated into over 20 languages. The 2014 winner, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, has secured English publication with Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US. It is set to be published in Autumn 2016. Saud Alsanousi’s 2013 winning entry The Bamboo Stalk (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) was published in the UK in April 2015 in English translation by Jonathan Wright. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nigerian and South African writers dominate Caine Prize 2015 shortlist

Ten years after Nigerian author Segun Afolabi won the 2005 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story "Monday Morning", it was announced today that he is among the five writers shortlisted for this year's prize. The Prize is awarded for a short story of 3,000-10,000 words by an African writer published in English, whether in Africa or elsewhere.

The shortlist was announced by the chair of the Caine Prize judges, award-winning South African writer Zoë Wicomb, who described it as "an exciting crop of well-crafted stories." The winner of the £10,000 prize - now in its sixteenth year - will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on Monday 6 July. Each shortlisted candidate will receive a travel award and a prize of £500. 

Segun Afolabi ©Barney Jones

Afolabi is shortlisted for “The Folded Leaf” published by London-based Wasafiri magazine in 2014. Since winning the Caine Prize he has won further acclaim as a writer of both long and short fiction: his collection of short stories A Life Elsewherewas published in 2006 followed by the novel Goodbye Lucille in 2007.

Afolabi's fellow-Nigerian Elnathan John is shortlisted for “Flying” which appeared in 2014 in Per Contra, the international journal of the arts, literature and ideas, in 2014. John was first shortlisted for the Caine Prize in  2013, for “Bayan Layi".

Elnathan John

The strong record of Nigerian and South African writers in Caine Prize shortlists is maintained in the 2015, which includes two writers from each country. One of the South African writers is F. T. Kola, shortlisted for  “A Party for the Colonel” published by One Story magazine of Brooklyn, New York City in 2014.

F. T. Kola
The other South African, Masande Ntshanga, is shortlisted for “Space”, published in Twenty in 20 (Times Media, South Africa, 2014).

Masande Ntshanga ©Peg Skorpinski

The fifth shortlisted writer  is Namwali Serpell of Zambia, whose story “The Sack” was published in the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara (Bloomsbury, London, 2014). Serpell was shortlisted for the Caine Pirze in 2010 for “Muzungu”.

Namwali Serpell

The judges for this year's Caine Prize are - in addition to the chair Zoë Wicomb - award-winning Indian novelist Neel Mukherjee; Zimbabwean novelist, short-story writer and 2004 Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava; Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown Universit Cóilín Parsons, and Sudanese-British TV and radio journalist Zeinab Badawi.

Wicomb said:  "For all the variety of themes and approaches, the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics. Unforgettable characters, drawn with insight and humour, inhabit works ranging from classical story structures to a haunting, enigmatic narrative that challenges the conventions of the genre."

Wicomb added, "Understatement and the unspoken prevail: hints of an orphan’s identity bring poignant understanding of his world; the reader is slowly and expertly guided to awareness of a narrator’s blindness; there is delicate allusion to homosexual love; a disfigured human body is encountered in relation to adolescent escapades; a nameless wife’s insecurities barely mask her understanding of injustice; and, we are given a flash of insight into dark passions that rise out of a surreal resistance culture."

 "Above all, these stories speak of the pleasure of reading fiction. It will be no easy task to settle on a winner."
The stories will be published in New Internationalist’s Caine Prize 2015 Anthology in July and through co-publishers across Africa, who receive a print ready PDF free of charge from New Internationalist. Last year's anthology is entitled  The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014.

In April 2015, twelve writers from eight African countries convened in Ghana as part of the Caine Prize’s writers’ workshop. During the workshop, the writers were expected to write short stories for the 2015 Caine Prize anthology. During the 13 days of the workshop the writers wrote, read and discussed work in progress under the mentorship of Leila Aboulela, the Sudanese author who won the inaugural Caine Prize in 2000, and has since become an internationally renowned author, and South African novelist and journalist Zukiswa Wanner.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is named in celebration of the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc, who was Chairman of the 'Africa 95' arts festival in Europe and Africa in 1995 and for nearly 25 years Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee.  
Susannah Tarbush, London