International Prize for Arabic Fiction: A Q&A with Judge Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla

Judge Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla, a Spanish academic, translator and researcher, stuck around after the Wednesday morning news conference, during which the six shortlisted books and five judges were revealed. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

ArabLit: What was your reaction to being asked to judge this prize, to read 100+ Arabic novels in a few months, to enter this…fray?

Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla: One of my fields of expertise is the Arabic novel so I have followed, from the beginning, this prize. I have even written about it. Not only about the prize, but about the importance of the prize in the context of Arabic culture, in the context of how it might help Arabic literature to be translated into other languages, in which I work.

So I knew what it was, and I felt…very honored. Then I felt that it was a big responsibility, and in terms of time it was a very demanding proposal.

AL: How has this group of judges gotten on?

GFP: It seems that compared to other years, it’s been a very friendly—or not friendly, other years were also friendly—but easier. Because we quickly agreed on the most important issues.

AL: Which were?

GFP: We agreed on a high percentage of what was the best and then we spent our time trying to arrange the rest of the list. We really agreed on the important things, but the rest…who will be the sixth…that’s where had more opinions. We agreed easily on the bulk, but on the small things we had very different opinions.

AL: Gamal al-Ghitani once complained that this prize doesn’t have a “philosophy.” So, when you go through the books, what are you looking for? What sort of criteria do you bring to it?

GFP: First, I think…this prize, like the English Booker Prize, has a philosophy. Because the publishers present what they think their best titles of the year. That’s a criteria. Then the judges try to figure out what are the best novels. Now we enter into a field of subjectivity where the criteria are very different, even among the judges—even among ourselves, as you go changing your criteria and your opinions on what is a good novel.

But, from the experience that I have on a European project, Mémoires de la Méditerranée, where you have to a agree…on a book to translate from Arabic other European languages, I think when you have five people, for example, who agree that something is a good novel…well, we might be wrong, but we are coming from very different places.

AL: What do you think about there being a “foreign judge” every year, for the prize?

GFP: I understand my role in line with the view of a prize whose main objective is to foster the reading and writing of Arabic fiction in the Arab world. I think our role as foreign judges is also to contribute to foster the translation of Arabic literature into other languages.

AL: Was the longlist more difficult to come to a consensus about?

GFP: Up to now, there were 16 [on the longlist]. This year, there was 13. Because, for those last three titles, we had very different criteria.

We decided not to force… Because the rules allow us to choose between 12 and 16. The minimum of 12 and the maximum is 16. The thing is, when you create a tradition, everyone expects…if the first judges had chosen 13, this would not be an issue.

AL: The first 13 novels, you all agreed on. And then…

GFP: We had very different opinions. Tastes, I would say. Tastes.

AL: Do you already have one novel that you really want to win?

GFP: I mean, my responsibility is to read them again and to let myself be exposed to them anew…