When the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) jury announced their winning book on May 22, it threw the spotlight on a gap between Arabic- and English-language literary worlds.
Of the six authors shortlisted for this year’s IFFP, five were celebrated in their original languages. Karl Ove Knausgard is a celebrity in Norway, where his books are widely lauded; Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award; Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most popular writers; Hubert Mingarelli has won France’s Prix de Medicis; and Birgit Vanderbeke won Germany’s prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Preis for her shortlisted book, The Mussel Feast.
But England’s top prize for translated literature didn’t go to any of these renowned authors. For the first time in its 24 years, the IFFP went to an author who writes in Arabic. Yet it didn’t go to one of Arabic letters’ established stars: It went instead to Iraqi short-story writer Hassan Blasim, who struggled to publish his work in Arabic, received poor reviews and has not won a single Arabic literary prize.
The collection that won the 2014 IFFP – Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright – has not even appeared in print in Arabic.
In a recent interview with Guernica, Blasim said that he wasn’t concerned about this lack of acclaim in Arabic: “There’s an elite that controls the festivals, the newspapers and the reviews. They are just a corrupt clique with no interest in creativity.”
Blasim is not the only writer to leap over Arab critics and prizes en route to English-language stardom. But he’s perhaps the most significant among them.
I reject writers who concentrate on the beauty of the language rather than the violence of events. When you write in literary Arabic you are like something from history. How can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?
The Iraqi author worked as a filmmaker until he was forced to flee his country in 2003, after which he sought asylum in Finland. His first stories were published on a website he helps run, Iraqstory.com. The London-based publisher Comma Press included one of these in its 2009 collection Madinah: City Stories form the Middle East. Comma’s Ra Page was so impressed by Blasim’s story, Reality and the Record, that he asked Jonathan Wright to translate a whole collection of the Iraqi author’s work.
The collection The Madman of Freedom Square was published in 2010, and it was longlisted for that year’s IFFP. On the surface, the stories in that collection look like portraits of violence in contemporary Iraq. But they’re much more than that. They’re about what it means to tell – and to hear – a story.
Struggled to find a publisher
Blasim struggled to find a publisher for his collection in Arabic. When the collection finally came out in Arabic in 2012, as Majnoon Sahat el-Horreya, it was with a number of redactions and it was banned in Jordan and perhaps elsewhere. The stories also didn’t get the acclaim that they’d received in English. A review in Al-Akhbar, for instance, comments on a lack of sentence-level beauty. Other critics remarked on an absence of innovative language or style.
The English translation may have clarified some moments in the prose, but the English versions couldn’t be called beautiful, either. Indeed, Blasim has said that pretty language is not his focus. At a 2012 talk in London, he said that, “During the civil war in Iraq, people were still talking about the beauty and sacredness of Arabic as a language. I reject writers who concentrate on the beauty of the language rather than the violence of events.” He added: “When you write in literary Arabic you are like something from history. How can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?”
Far more damning is the criticism of Blasim’s stories in the Al Akhbar review and elsewhere, that the stories “exoticise” atrocity, torture and murder, which is why they have achieved more acclaim in the West than in Arabic.
But Blasim seems to respond to this charge even before it’s made. In a story from Madman, Ali’s Bag, the narrator notes, “I was always tempted to write the story of Ali al-Basrawi, even if it is loaded with grief and gloom, along with a few Third World cliches which try to appeal to the sentiments of Western audiences.”
The criticism in the Arab press hasn’t been universal. Egyptian author and critic Youssef Rakha lauded the stories in Al Ahram. After Blasim won the IFFP, Mazen Maarouf wrote in Al Araby Al Jedeed that Blasim’s work had been poorly reviewed, in part, because it’s broken new ground. Maarouf grants that Blasim’s language is open to criticism, but says The Iraqi Christ‘s win is a win for Arabic literature.
Indeed, Blasim’s stories do break ground, although in different ways, in English and in Arabic. In the English language, the appearance of Iraqi stories is itself ground-breaking. English literature post-2003, has been overwhelmed by the narratives of soldiers and embedded journalists. In focusing on Blasim as an Iraqi “spokesman”, some English-language readers have missed other aspects of the stories. In Arabic, the fearlessness of Blasim’s stories has broken new ground, leading some to ignore his playfulness and sharp scene-setting.
There will always be disagreements on the valuation and re-evaluation of artists. But part of what’s missing here is a more open dialogue between Arabic- and English-language critics. In the movement between languages, there’s much to share.
Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at http://www.arablit.org