An Arab Woman’s Nobel

The more I read about it, the less the Nobel Prize for Literature makes sense — although I suppose that’s the case with most literary prizes. One of the strangest parts of the Nobel show is the lobbying done by various nationalities, genders, and other sundry human categories.

One doesn’t, of course, hear, “Give the Nobel to a man this year!” as one hears “We need it here in China!” or “sub-Saharan Africa!” or “Halloooo, North America!”

But one does hear a murmur — less pronounced, to be sure, than the “Hallooo, North America!” — that suggests giving it to a woman. After all, the prize does have quite a gender imbalance sitting on its shoulders: 12 women have taken it (of 108 total winners). This makes for a lower percentage, I’d think, than just about any other major literary prize.

The academy has apparently said some blah blah blah about gender, nationality, and language not being a factor. First, of course language is a factor; the committee members only read in a limited number of them. Second, before giving the Nobel to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, the Swedish Academy apparently did some serious research into the work of Adonis, Yusuf Idris, Tayeb al-Salih, and Mahfouz, leading one to believe that the bell had dinged for an “Arab” Nobel. And lastly, let’s not be absurd: Our reading histories shape and prejudice our taste in writing. In Sweden as elsewhere.

So yesterday, the AFP mused (rather improbably) that the literature laureate could be Egyptian activist, memoirist, and novelist Nawal al-Saadawi, quoting publisher Elisabeth Grate: “It’s possible, it would tie in well with the developments in the Arab world and she’s a woman.”

(If they’re looking for product tie-ins, that is.)

Francophone Algerian writer and filmmaker Assia Djebar seems more to the Swedish Academy’s taste, plus she’s already won major international awards. However, I don’t think she’s published new creative work since Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Hanan al-Shaykh appears regularly on the Ladbrokes betting lists; her The Story of Zahra is beautiful, one of the novels that really marked my life. But some of her more recent work (Only in London) is not as powerful.

Ladbrokes is of course based in the UK, where Hanan al-Shaykh makes her home (as does Leila Aboulela; she also makes the list). And, truth be told, my Nobel favorites this year aren’t women. I’d be most excited, for instance, by an Elias Khoury win, or an improbable Bensalem Himmich.

Nonetheless, as a member of the under-Nobelled gender myself, some women who don’t live in London but could also make the Ladbrokes betting:

Radwa Ashour. Her work is both interrogatory and dramatic, interesting and compelling, ranging over a large philosophical, narrative, and historical canvas. I believe Barbara Romaine, who translated Ashour’s interesting meta-novel Specters is at work translating Ashour’s Farag into English for BQFP.

Sahar Khalifeh. I wish her latest novel, أصل و فصل, (Of Noble Origins), had been a little tighter. But a wonderful sympathetic range and ability to find the stories beneath official histories.

Huda Barakat. Her Tiller of Waters and Stones of Laughter are beautifully layered and textured, like the fabrics in Tiller, with a wonderful exploration of the relationship between humans and the objects of daily life. 

Who else? When asked, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (also in the running for the Nobel), said he thought Egyptian novelist Miral al-Tahawy was the next big thing, although he was projecting into future novels. We could also cast forward, imagining the future works of Iman Mersal, Leïla Marouane, and Adania Shibli, why not?