International Prize for Arabic Fiction: A Q&A with Judge Maudie Bitar

International Prize for Arabic Fiction judge Maudie Bitar, a Lebanese journalist and literary critic, was gracious enough to stand around in the chilly Cairo air and answer a few questions.

ArabLit: In the beginning, when you were asked to do this…giant task, what was your reaction? You were happy about it? Excited?

Maudie Bitar: Yeah, I was, actually. It is a responsibility, and you do not want to… There are always people who want to be happy with your decisions, but literature, it’s not about scientific formulae. It’s about the way you approach literature. [I was interested in] the range, the insight, the way you build characters. A lot of it was about war, looking for your identity, love lost, and so the range was very, very wide.

So I was looking to find [all] that in one novel in particular, you know. You need to find something that satisfies your taste in literature.

AL: How did the process go?

MB: …we didn’t have really have many arguments. But you know, there were people among us who had strong feelings about this or that novel. And it was, in the end, we had to resort to the process of elimination. And well, one or two of decisions, of the novels I selected, fell victim to that, but you have to accept it, because it’s…that’s the democratic system, you know. You have to vote for…you have to accept losses.

AL: But you’re happy with the six on the list?

MB: Yeah, they were the best ones. They were among the best ones. And yeah, I would bat for any one of them. Although you always have your personal favorites. And in the end there were five of us, and…the chair didn’t try to influence our decisions, but we had to work together. And I’m really happy with the way it went.

AL: Would you do it again?

MB: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I really have to think about it. I read more than 100 novels in, let’s see, less than three months. I got a twitch in my eye. And I had to do my work in addition to that. So it wasn’t really an easy task. But I enjoyed it very much. But as to doing it again, I think that I would have to skip a few years at least.

AL: Do you already know which novel you want to win?

MB: Um…sort of. Maybe I have to select one of these three, maybe. And again, it depends on what I’m looking for, what I look for normally, in a novel. It has nothing to do with the…whether it’s a man or a woman, or where he or she comes from, no. I’m a fast reader and I enjoy reading, and this is what I’m looking for, to enjoy the novel….

AL: And do you think that’s part of the “Booker” aesthetic? That they want a book that’s enjoyable?

MB: They don’t influence our decision one way or another, no. They just leave you alone. I mean, Fleur sits with us during our discussions, but she just keeps silent. No, we just ask her…what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, as far as, you know, administrative matters are concerned. Other than that, no, they don’t tell you anything.

AL: In terms of a philosophy of the prize, it’s really the individual philosophy of each judge, then.

MB: Yeah, but I think we have a lot in common. We’re all looking to enjoy the novels. Yeah, I mean, you know, as a critic, you have…I’m not looking for a feel-good [?]… You’re looking for a complex characters, a dark plot maybe, the way things develop… So, yeah. I think it’s the same for everybody else, they’re looking for not an everyday TV series or something.