Page-turning Novel by Young Kuwaiti Author Wins 2013 ‘Arabic Booker’

Saud Alsanousi accepting the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

On Tuesday night, judging chair Galal Amin announced that young Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi had won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the Arabic Booker:

“I am very happy for myself and for Kuwait,” Alsanousi said upon receiving the award.

Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk was chosen from a shortlist of six by this year’s judging panel, which was chaired by Egyptian economist and writer Galal Amin. The other novels on the list were Ibrahim Eissa’s popular Our Master, Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon’s novel of homeland and displacement Hail Mary, Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan’s family story The Beaver, Jana Elhassan’s novel of relationships, Me, Her, and the Other Women, and Hussein el-Wad’s political tale His Excellency, the Minister.

The novel The Bamboo Stalk follows Eissa/José, the son of a Kuwaiti father and a Filipino mother, as he returns to Kuwait as an adult and faces the country’s social and racial prejudices.

Alsanousi reading from his novel during the short film.
Alsanousi reading from his novel during the short film.

In a short film about his book, aired before the announcement, Alsanousi spoke about the reasons he had called the book The Bamboo Stalk. We can cut any part of the bamboo and plant it anywhere, he said, “and it will grow new roots.”

Alsanousi traveled to the Philippines as part of writing the novel, he said, in order to learn more about his character’s life and background. He noted that most Kuwaitis know little about Filipinos, only “that they are laborers in our country.” However, the author also stressed, after winning the award, that The Bamboo Stalk is not just a Filipino story, nor just a Kuwaiti story, but a universal one.

Judging chair Galal Amin said that the panel had to select one winner even though, “No one can claim that there is a single [judging] criteria on which all can agree…or that there is one novel that can possess all the characteristics that one would wish to see in a novel.”

Anticipating later questions from the media, Amin also emphasized that the five judges had neither been influenced by “any person or panel connected with promoting or supervising the prize nor from the authors of the books themselves.” It was, he said, a coincidence that the authors of the six shortlisted novels hail from six different countries. “It was a happy surprise for the judging panel as much as it was for others.”

Galal Amin announcing the winner.
Galal Amin announcing the winner.

Following the announcement, journalists asked at a press conference about how it happens that three Gulf authors — Abdo Khal (from Saudi Arabia, 2010), Raja Alem (co-winner from Saudi Arabia, 2011), and now Saud el-Sanoussi– had all won the six-year-old prize. The judges repeatedly emphasized that they had chosen the best novels, not countries or novelists.

Judge Barbara Michalak-Pikulska, a Polish Arabist, said in an interview that the judges had come to their final decision relatively quickly. She compared their recent brief discussion, “only a few hours,” to the lengthy debates that were needed to settle on the longlist and shortlist. Michalak-Pikulska said that she, for one, had gone into the final meeting with The Bamboo Stalk in mind. “When I read the books again, for me it was very outstanding.”

The panel considered, Michalak-Pikulska said, what the opinion of a “normal reader” would be if he or she read the book. And, she added, “you read [The Bamboo Stalk] with pleasure.”

In a prepared statement, Amin emphasized the “superior quality of this novel, both artistically and also in terms of its social and humanitarian content.”

Michalak-Pikulska also underlined the book’s topical nature, saying she valued the book in part because it had chosen a “fresh subject,” one not dealt with widely in Arabic literature.

The Cracow-based Arabic professor also added that, “when you read [The Bamboo Stalk], you had to finish it.” She and other judges also pointed to the book’s language as a deciding factor. Michalak-Pikulska further emphasized that Alsanousi’s being a Gulf author had nothing to do with the selection, and said that the panel “did not concentrate on names and especially on countries.”

However, Michalak-Pikulska added, “I am very happy that Gulf literature starts to be so strong.”

Alsanousi, who was born in 1981, this year became the youngest author to win the award. He also became the first Kuwaiti author.

The Bamboo Stick is Alsanousi’s second novel; his first, Prisoner of Mirrors, was published in 2010 and won that year’s Leila Othman Prize. Alsanousi also won first place in the 2011 BBC/Al-Arabi “Stories on the Air” competition, for “The Bonsai and the Old Man.” The IPAF award will bring Alsanousi $50,000 and a global profile.

Interviews with Alsanousi:

In Al Shorfa

Scheduled appearances:

Alsanousi will appear on a panel at tomorrow’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. He will also be with Jana Elhassan and Mohamed Hasan Alwan at the Hay Festival Beirut on May 9.