Which Writers Does the ‘Arab Expert’ Man Booker International Judge Favor?

Ben East of The National interviewed 2015 Man Booker International judge Wen-chin Ouyang, professor of Arabic and comparative literature at SOAS, about whether she might be waving the flag for Arab writers over the next two years:

130812 Wen Chin Ouyang 1 (credit Graham Fudger)
Photo credit Graham Fudger.

Ouyang joins four other judges, including judging chair Marina Warner, who teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi. Together, they will make a shortlist of 10+ authors for the £60,000 international prize. The prize, which is awarded every two years, is for an author’s entire body of work. There are no submissions: The judges and a newly established “e-Council” must come up with the shortlist.

Any writer in the world is eligible for this “international” prize, provided they write in English or have a significant amount of their work available in English.

East writes that, “of the 70 authors shortlisted in the history of the Man Booker International Prize, there’s only been one writer from the Arab world: the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.” Mahfouz was on the shortlist in 2005, a year before his death.  There have, however, been two non-Arabophone Arab writers on the book’s lists, Lebanese novelists Amin Maalouf and David Malouf.

Ouyang told East:

“We know about Naguib Mahfouz, of course, but there are other equally important authors now. The way the Arab novel has progressed has been quite fascinating, and for me, it’s become the most important genre in modern Arabic writing. Most critics agree that it reached maturity with Mahfouz, but I genuinely think there are now novelists who have taken the Arabic novel quite a few steps further in terms of experimentation and tackling contemporary issues.”

East asked Ouyang for a few names:

Ibrahim Nasrallah I like very much, but he’s little-known outside Palestine. There’s a Lebanese writer, Rabee Jaber, who is also not particularly talked about outside the Arabic-speaking world. And I always look forward to the work of another Lebanese writer, Hoda Barakat.

Hoda Barakat is certainly well-known in France, and will be on a US tour this month, including an appearance with Sinan Antoon in NYC and one at Georgetown University. Jaber doesn’t do many public appearances, but he writes like a fiend; His Mehlis Report, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zaid, recently appeared in English, and his Confessions are scheduled to appear next year, also in translation from Abu-Zaid.

Surely the amount of the author’s work that must be available in translation is subjective, although two novels isn’t likely to be “enough.” Bakarat has three books in English, as well as a stray excerpt or two: Is that enough? Certainly, for authors with a somewhat broader body of work in English, there are Elias Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Sahar Khalifeh, Ibrahim al-Koni, Bensalem Himmich, Radwa Ashour, Sonallah Ibrahim. Did I mention Elias Khoury? Francophone Arab writers include Rachid Boudjedra, Assia Djebar, and Etel Adnan.

Of Anglophone Arab novelists, Ouyang also noted:

“Then of course, there are Arab writers who don’t write in Arabic, which is an important distinction. My favourite of those right now is [also another Lebanese author] Rawi Hage – his work is really gripping. But no, I’m not going to give away too many names.”