Iraqi-Danish author Hawra al-Nadawi’s Under the Copenhagen Sky was the only woman’s book on the 2011 longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which featured just 13 titles.
Al-Nadawi did not make the six-long shortlist; 2011 was thus the first year with no women on the IPAF shortlist.
One could say, as the judges did, that this is a non-issue: The books make the shortlist, not the authors. Woman, man, dolphin, whatever — the only thing that matters is the quality of the novel.
However, whether we like it or not, these discrepancies do dredge up all sorts of issues about gender and literature: Which books are submitted by their publishers? Do publishers prefer to submit “men’s” books because they’re afraid that women’s novels don’t smell sufficiently prize-worthy? Or are the publishers right, does the discrepancy lie at the feet of women writers (particularly those like Radwa Ashour who decline to let their works be submitted)?
In any case, none of this figured in my decision to ignore al-Nadawi’s book. My reasons were good and pure: I don’t like the cover art.
But then came Banipal 44: 12 Women Writers, and a chapter from al-Nadawi’s Under Copenhagen’s Sky, trans. Robin Moger. And really (even though the cover remains unappealing) al-Nadawi does give an interesting and sometimes funny look at the suffocating labels and tensions that squeeeeze the life of an Iraqi refugee in Denmark. The protagonist is not just a young Iraqi in Denmark — enveloped by a suffocating expectation of “foreignness” — but she must be either an Islamist or a Communist Iraqi, and she’s certainly not a Christian, a Sunni, or a Kurd!
“When I hear the word ‘Christian’ for example, I picture a pious Catholic from Southern Europe. How can a man be an Iraqi and a Christian at hte same time? How can he be Sunni, in fact, when at the word the image of a Saudi with an unkempt beard and short thaub leaps into my mind, accusing me of unbelief, of heresy and abandoning the true faith.”
The voice veers between funny and facile, and sometimes meanders a bit, but this is fertile ground, with much to be explored further. A bit, as you might expect, like the ground explored by French-Algerian author Faïza Guène; I would hope that the book is translated first and foremost into Danish.
In an interview with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) organizers, the young al-Nadawi (at longlisting, she was 27) said that she’s working on another novel as well as short stories.
Al-Nadawi also emailed more extensively with Susannah Tarbush over at The Tanjara. Al-Nadawi, understandably, did not want to get into the issue of the number of women on the IPAF longlist:
Last year people were thrilled because there were as many as six women in the long list: this year they’re thrilled because there is only one. This debate never seems to end. I truly believe that creativity knows no gender, no age, and no race, thus I never question any of those.
Also, although she is fully bilingual, she told Tarbush she prefers Arabic because “Arabic is a very rich and strong language and gives you more freedom when you choose to play with it, so I prefer it when writing.”
I look forward to seeing more from al-Nadawi. But still, I don’t like the cover.