Q&A with International Prize for Arabic Fiction Administrator Fleur Montanaro

Fleur Montanaro, who took over administration of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction last September, is currently visiting Cairo. Montanaro was born in Malta and grew up in Malta, Nigeria and London; her MA is in English literature, and she later studied Arabic at SOAS.

She and I met recently. What follows is much of what we discussed (excepting, for instance, the really banal parts about where we should sit); an article about the IPAF ran in Al Masry Al Youm and you can find MA Orthofer’s commentary on it at the Literary Saloon.

ArabLit: So…what are some of your favorite Arabic books?

Fleur Montanaro: Before I thought I would actually ever work for the prize, I read a lot of Bahaa Taher novels. And I met him by chance, actually, and that was lovely, because he’s a delightful person. And then at the time, he had just been nominated for the…International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

I love Bahaa Taher. I also translated some stories of Zakaria Tamer. I’m very fond of him. I like different authors, new writers, and I’m enjoying reading some of the submissions this year, and I can’t say which ones, that’s a secret.

AL: Help me out. What exactly does a prize admin do?

FM: As the administrator, I’m involved in the day-to-day running of the prize.

I just want to separate it from trustees and judges, just to be absolutely clear.

We have about 14 trustees. You can read about them on the website, actually. They meet three times a year, and they basically make the general policy decisions, looking at the goals of the prize, for instance, how can we encourage translation, how is that going. Are there any issues that come up, general issues, difficulties. When shall we have the shortlist announcement, for instance. But as for actual day-to-day running of the prize, they’re not involved and they don’t interfere.

They do nominate the judges, and they do decide who the judging panel will be. A major role.

But then after that is complete, we have one meeting with the head judge, the chair of judges, and we brief him, and he briefs the rest of the judges. And from that point, there should be no contact between the trustees and the judges, so that the judges are free and independent and impartial.

From that point on, I take over contact with the judges. And organize the practical things. Like, for the last three months, I’ve been a postmistrees, basically. I’ve been sending out 108 books to five judges. And sorting out any problems with the books, with the judges—postal problems, anything that could come up. And there are lots of different queries people have, various detail things. So at that point I kind of coordinate the judges meetings, you know, contact between them as well.

They are allowed to contact each other, but as long as the contact is between all of them, and with my knowledge as well. We don’t have a situation where you have two judges… We try to guard against that. So the judges actually do sign a document in the beginning. One of the points is that all communication should be joint communication together, and with the knowledge of the administrator.

It varies from year to year, how the judges want to work, how they want to do their work. One year, there’s a lot of communication by email, or it could be there’s virtually none, and they’re just reading the novels.

And when they get to the meeting, they each have their list of 16 to 20, and then they decide during the meeting.

AL: They do this meeting in person?

FM: They meet in person, yeah, usually in a European capital. Usually, by tradition, where the chair of judges is living. But the shortlist meeting and announcement is always in the Arab world.

That’s usually November for the longlist and December for the shortlist.

They’re meeting Tuesday the 8th of November. [The longlist will be out November 10.] And that’s literally a one-day meeting, and they have one day to decide, to get their final list of 16. It needn’t actually be by complete consensus, like every single judge votes for every single book. But they have to come to a general agreement. And they work out how they want to do that, what system they want to use, in terms of voting or… Now, the best thing is if they are all genuinely enthusiastic about every title. It’s not very likely, obviously.

AL: Right.

FM: But it happened last year, they were genuinely very much of one mind. It was quite harmonious. It was surprising, actually, how harmonious. I was shocked.. They each brought their list, and about 12 out of the 16 were the same on the list. And they hadn’t consulted very much between them. It was quite amazing. The Italian judge was actually, she was really surprised. She had wondered, as a foreigner, will my books be the same? And they were.

AL: And the judges are announced with the shortlist. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.

FM: The judges are secret until the shortlist to avoid any kind of pressure being put on them. I think it increases the excitement of the actual shortlist announcement.

AL: Joumanah was a fairly controversial admin. Do you imagine being lower-profile?

FM: They were looking for someone who was enthusiastic about literature, and who could do the job. I don’t know if they were looking for contrast or what, really.

AL: So, okay, help me to understand the job.

FM: You need administrative skills, you need language skills. A lot of the communication is in Arabic. I think one of the ideal things would be a knowledge of publishing in the Arab world, which at that time I didn’t have, but I’m learning.

And I think the ability to keep things secret, because you have to keep a lot of things you know discrete. You know the works that are submitted, they’re never revealed.

AL: There were 108 submissions this year?

FM: Approximately, yeah. We can’t say yet, because some books got lost in the post, and I gave them a chance that they could send them again. And because I’ve left England, I don’t know if they’ve arrived yet.

AL: That’s down quite a bit from last year.

FM: Yeah, last year it was 123. This year, I think it’s because of the situation with publishing and the revolutions. Yeah, for example, in Syria, in the words of a publisher I know, publishing has stopped, essentially. He’s occupied with other things. Actually, that number is quite high considering what’s been going on.

You know, one of our publishers said that before he was publishing 2 books every 3 days, and now it’s one a week. So it’s really affected [publishing].

AL: Why don’t you just publish the whole list of everything that comes in?

FM: I think partly it’s so that authors, you know, who are not nominated don’t lose face, as such. And I think actually a lot of authors would prefer that, actually, not to be known. They might be disappointed. That’s one reason.

AL: I read in a ‘Literature Across Frontiers’ report about Arabic literature that the IPAF “primarily promotes the winners in the Anglophone world.” Do you agree with that?

FM: Not at all, no, no, definitely internationally. Youssef Ziedan and Bahaa Taher have been translated into about 13 languages. Azazeel maybe a bit more, actually, maybe 15? All—Eastern Europe, Indonesia, all different languages. And we’re really keen to, whoever wants to translate, to help that to happen.

From the beginning, the English translation, we do guarantee that, as long as there’s a publisher who’s willing to sign onto that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to encourage other translations. In fact, we funded German translation, in the past, and we’re very interested in reaching big markets in different parts of the world.

Because I think one of the goals is to promote translation of Arabic literature, be it to Spain, Japan, wherever. In fact, it would be great to see South America, for example. Brazil, somewhere like that. I think that would be of a lot of interest. There’s lots of links there with the Arab world, I think that would be fantastic. I have a contact with a Spanish publisher, who would like to see more Arabic literature in festivals for Spanish-speaking parts of the world.

It’s definitely a worldwide thing.

AL: More interested in promoting them worldwide vs. promoting them and seeing them read within Arab countries?

FM: We’re talking about this and how to promote reading in Arab countries. That’s a wonderful goal as well. Definitely, we’d like to encourage that. I think one of the things we need to see is how practically that could happen. We definitely want to see Arabic literature given the place that it’s deserved. Increased readership and knowledge of literature.

AL: But that’s still in the discussion phase.

FM: I’d say it’s still in the discussion phase at the moment.

But I think that hopefully, the prize itself increasing the profile and interest of Arab literature in general.

AL: So I have a whole heading called ‘criticisms.’

First… Some have complained about publishers only getting 3 submissions. (Although I realize that with the Man Booker, it’s only 2 per publisher.) Is there any thought to changing to a higher number?

FM: I think that is just a very practical problem, the time that we have between the actual closing date and the longlist decision. At the moment, they’re already almost reading one novel a day.

The problem is that a lot of people submit very late. I have most of my submissions, maybe 80 percent of them in the last two weeks. Had they submitted at the beginning of April, when they could have done, they would’ve had more time to read, and therefore we could’ve had a bigger number.

You can imagine if we opened it up and said, ‘You can submit as many as you like.’ We would have a massive number.

If we were going to do that, we would have to think of a restructuring, to allow that to happen. But there are no plans to do that.

AL: With the Man Booker, if you were previously shortlisted, your novel can be submitted without counting against the 2-title limit.

FM: That’s true. I was not aware of that, and a lot of publishers were not of aware of that. It would’ve affected one of the publishers this year. Yes, if you have been previously shortlisted, you can be automatically submitted, and it doesn’t count against your … number. You can still submit three titles.

It’s so that they [the publishers] don’t always choose the same authors, so that other writers get a chance.

AL: A number of critics have expressed discomfort with funding, oversight from Emirates.

FM:  Genuinely, the role of our funder is they give us money, and they help us to get visas sometimes for the authors who are doing events in the Emirates or for the ceremony, and that is their role, actually. And they don’t interfere in the daily running of the prize. I personally don’t have much contact with the Emirates Foundation at all. The number of emails that I write, they’re restricted to workshops we’re doing, practical arrangements.

They don’t influence the running of the prize, which is great. They don’t seek to influence or interfere. No one from the Emirates foundation is a trustee.

AL: Novelist Gamal al-Ghitani said that he wouldn’t let his work be submitted for the IPAF because, among other reasons, that the award has “no philosophy.” Can you articulate the award’s philosophy? What sort of book are the judges looking for? Are they looking for the ‘best’ novel of the year, or…how is that framed?

FM: They are looking the best novel for that year, without regard to the identity of the author whether he’s an established writer, young or old, regardless of his previous books. Just that novel that he or she has written is the best novel for that year. And how they decide what “best” novel is is obviously down to the judges each year. And it’s in a way a subjective decision because a different panel will choose a different book.

AL: But there are no specific criteria.

FM: There’s no fixed criteria that we have in writing. It’s literally quality. I think if we had written criteria, I think that would be too constricting.

AL: Al-Ghitani also complained about translation being part of the award. I think this dovetails into the criticism that the award is more Westward-looking, that it lays too much emphasis on books that appeal to foreign readers.

FM: The judges aren’t choosing it on the basis of whether it’s going to be good in translation in any language. They genuinely are choosing them on the basis of quality without regard to that. As an example, one the winners this year Raja Alem, is quite refined and may not be very easy to translate. They didn’t consider that; that wasn’t a consideration at all.

AL: Radwa Ashour has declined to participate (so her Tantoureya wasn’t up for the award). Hanan al-Shaykh has said that the IPAF has not yet turned up the best of Arabic literature. Are you still looking to widen the net?

FM: Well, it’s up to the people who criticize it…to submit their books. That would be wonderful. It’s difficult, because you want it to be the best book for that year. I think the novels that have been chosen are good, so far. In every year, you’ve got variety in every prize.

I don’t know how, without increasing the number of submissions—which is difficult—how we widen the net.

AL: One thing to me is the requirement that the authors sign off. For instance, I don’t know if Talossos was submitted, but I imagine that Sonallah Ibrahim wouldn’t have signed off on it. What’s the thought behind requiring them to sign off vs. saying we just want the best books, we don’t care if you’re going to turn down the award or not.

FM: To be honest I’m not sure. But I think because we would like the nominated novelists to actually be able to talk about their novels, to have interaction with the public, the press. [If they didn’t], that would be a big shame. So I think that’s one reason.

AL: Another criticism: “They do not decide according to literary merit only. They divide the choices [on the shortlist] around the Arab world.” Others have criticized gender equity—both that there were too few and too many women writers.

FM: Absolutely not. I can just say no, really. I know that the judges last year didn’t give any consideration to age, nationality, gender, any personal things about the writer. At the shortlist announcement, they said, ‘Did you know that you chose the nephew of Tayeb al-Salih?’ Amir Tag el-Sir is the nephew of Tayeb al-Salih.

They assumed that the judges knew this, and they chose him because he was al-Salih’s nephew. And Fadhil al-Azzawi, said, ‘Oh, is he? I didn’t know that.’ So he chose him on the basis of the book.

AL: That finishes the section of my questions titled “criticisms.”

FM: Phew.

AL: Can you talk about the other work of the IPAF, besides the actual prize? There’s the nadwa. That will continue each year? Do you also administer that? How are participants chosen?

FM: The judges nominate the writers basically from authors that have submitted novels for the prize from the previous year. Of course we’re looking for younger writers. Again, the same thing applies: If they don’t find among the submitted novelists, someone of a suitable age and caliber, they can actually call in a young writer, they can recommend a young writer who they feel would benefit from a nadwa, which is what’s happening this year, there were not enough younger writers.

AL: When is that?

FM: It’s October. 23rd. It’s in Abu Dhabi. Because again we are given money for that by the sheikh.

AL: Eight participants?

FM: Actually seven to eight.

AL: The names have been decided on?

FM: Not entirely There are five that are decided, that we’ve agreed to them, and three that we’re still contacting them or working out who it should be.

AL: And a collection will come out of it?

FM: What’s lovely about the nadwa—I’m going to my first one this year, kind of coordinating it and being there with the writers—it to see that they’re from all different countries, and there’s a sort of gender balance. So you have a situation where there are writers from Tunisia, comparing work with writers from Saudi Arabia and Sudan and without criticiszing in a negative way, using positive criticism, reading each other’s work and talking about it.

AL: They write a work there. But that’s not necessarily what goes into the collection?

FM: They either come with a blank page, and start a short story from scratch. Or it might be a story that they’ve done some work on, but it’s a bit rough. It could be a chapter from a novel instead of a story.

AL: Why do you think the IPAF has such a high profile, as opposed to other Arab literary prizes? Hassan Daoud, for instance, said at a recent Shubbak appearance, while criticizing the prize, that “it has become the only reference point for judging Arabic novels.”

FM: Maybe because people can see that it is transparent, and that the judges are acting independently, and making decisions based on the quality of the novels rather than on any other consideration, such as gender, nationality, age of the writer. Basically, it’s solely on that novel, that particular novel.

Maybe because it has an international reach as well, seeking to promote Arabic literature in general.

AL: How do you balance the panel of judges?

FM: We try to get a balance, actually. So academics, novelists, journalists, experts in Arabic literature.

Usually, the foreign judge is a translator, and has experience in translation as well as being an Arabist. Usually an academic and a translator.

AL: What’s the thought behind having a non-Arab judge?

FM: I think it’s because it’s the International Prize for Arabic Literuatre. So it’s getting another viewpoint on choice of the work.

AL: So they’re free to do whatever they like? They could choose six winners? They could choose no winners?

FM: They definitely couldn’t choose three, that’s for sure.

This year, they just genuinely felt they couldn’t give it to one and not the other, they felt it was unfair. They really felt they were equally good in different ways, with different strengths. They actually persuaded the chair of trustees that they could make that decision to have both. It may not come again.

AL: So there was contact between the trustees and the judges.

FM: Well, when they had come to the decision and the meeting was finished, and that was the decision they came to, and at that point, because it was unprecedented, we had to defer to the chair of trustees, and say: Can we do this? And he allowed them to do it. To the joy and relief of the judges. Because they really were passionate that that’s what they wanted. And they were allowed to have it.

AL: And they were all on the same page about that? There wasn’t a side for Alem and a side for Achaari?

FM: Absolutely not, no. I know there’s been some comment about that. But they all genuinely felt that.

AL: So it’s your first time in Cairo with the prize. What are you doing while you’re here?

FM: We’re thinking of having the venue here for the shortlist announcement. So I’m just looking at venues. And meeting publishers and meeting various interested people, like yourself.

AL: Are you thinking about a number of cities? Or you’re mostly thinking about Cairo.

FM: Mostly about Cairo. It does depend a bit on events. I’m hoping.

The shortlist will be announced, the actual announcement will be Wednesday the 7th of December. Meeting on the 6th and the announcement’s on the 7th.

AL: And they have to decide on that day.

FM: Even if it takes them till midnight, and one o’clock in the morning and several cups of coffee.

And on the 7th we’re going to have the announcement, and a press conference, and then we’re going to have a discussion that’s open to the public, meet the judges, talk to them, ask them questions.

AL: The events of the year have affected the number of submissions. Anything else?

FM: I think this is probably for next year, it will probably affect what people are writing about. We’re not seeing it this year, because the novels are from before. One of the shortlisted writers said that he’s writing with more hope. It’s given him more hope when he’s writing.

AL: Khaled [al-Berry] said that?

Yes, Khaled.

So, watch this space for the IPAF longlist on November 10. Until then, surely you should read Ezzedine Choukry’s novel,  عناق عند جسر بروكلين; it should at least be on the longlist.