Place: Tunisia

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Global literary news for global readers.

We’re back this week with important news and exciting new developments from the world of literature. Our Editors-at-Large in Mexico and Tunisia share the latest prizes, events and details relating to writers based within these regions. Tune in for more global updates next week! 

Sergio Sarano, Spanish Social Media Manager, reporting from Mexico: 

Jorge Volpi, one of Mexico’s most well-known authors, has won the very prestigious Alfagura Novel Prize for 2018. Alfagura is one of the most renowned publishing houses in the Spanish-speaking world, and the prize has previously gone to writers such as Elena Poniatowska (also the recipient of a Cervantes Prize), Laura Restrepo, and Andrés Neuman. The award consists of the publication of the novel and a very hefty sum of money: US$175,000, making it one of the richest prizes for fiction in the world. Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel) is a non-fiction novel in the vein of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; it takes up the notorious case of Israel Vallarta and Florence Cassez, a Mexican man and French woman accused of belonging to a kidnapping gang. The media eagerly covered the case, and it strained Mexican-French relations. Everyone in Mexico knows how the trial ended, but I’m sure the novel will be quickly translated into English—readers will be able to dig into this sordid story that weaves corruption, scandal, and diplomacy.

The Mexican literary community deeply mourned the death of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean antipoet. Numerous writers and poets voiced their debt to Parra and remembered his visits to Mexico in several media outlets. Honestly, very few Latin American writers can claim to have read his 1954 classic Poems and Antipoems and not wanting to become an antipoet. One of them was especially legendary: the time he went to Guadalajara to receive the first Juan Rulfo Prize (now called FIL Prize) back in 1991. There, Parra delivered his famous “Mai Mai Peñi” speech, in which he honored Juan Rulfo but at the same time ridiculed literary awards. One of its famous stanzas says: “The ideal speech / Is the one that doesn’t say a thing / Even though it seems like it says it all.” You can find “Mai Mai Peñi” and other classic mock-speeches in After-Dinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant.


International Prize for Arabic Fiction Winner Announced

“These works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

Last night in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was announced the winner of the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel, A Small Death, chosen from an impressive shortlist including Elias Khoury of Lebanon and Mohammed Abdel Nabi of Egypt.

In a video for IPAF, Alwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Toronto, said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

Since its inception almost ten years ago, IPAF, often referred to as the “Arabic Booker,” has maintained as its central mission the translation of winning and shortlisted novels to encourage greater readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally.  In fact, it guarantees translation of winning novels into English (and other languages when the budget permits), provides monetary awards to shortlisted pieces ($10,000 each, and $50,000 to the winner), and supports appearances of authors at international festivals, including Shubbak in London and the Berlin Literary Festival.

The initial idea for IPAF emerged in 2007 when Ibrahim el Moallem, then President of the Arab Publishers’ Association, “talked of the regrettably few numbers of high quality contemporary Arabic novels being translated into leading Western languages,” as Fleur Montanaro, current administrator of IPAF, recounted to me in a recent interview.  Ms. Montanaro added “these works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

According to numbers alone, IPAF does appear to have made some headway in promoting translation.  Although some have argued in the past (see this report from Literature Across Frontiers) that IPAF primarily encourages Anglophone translations, winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 20 languages, including several non-European languages, among them Chinese, Turkish, and Russian.  Furthermore, distribution has not been limited to the European continent.  For example, The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber, winner in 2012, was distributed in Latin America.