IPAF 2014: Lady Writers, Experimentation, and the Possibility of ‘Pure’ Literary Criteria

7iber’s Siwar Masannat was present at the February 10 shortlist announcement for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. She writes about the possibilities and im-possibilities of judging novels and the relationship between identity and writing style:

By Siwar Masannat

The four judges who were present at the IPAF shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da'ana
The four judges who were present at the IPAF shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana

The defensive stance the judges and Chairman of the IPAF Trustees took in response to questions regarding diversity and identity echoed the notion that novels are selected due to their merit, and based on: “literary or artistic criteria” (Abdullah Ibrahim),  “strength of narrative structure and use of creative language, and concurrently, less flaws” (Zhor Gourram), and “innovation in the techniques of narration and exposition” (Saad Albazei).

Perhaps the most reasonable claims were made by Libyan journalist and writer Ahmed Alfaitouri, who referred to himself as the “voice of the novelists” in the judging panel. Alfaitouri asserted that “prizes do not endow a work of fiction actual value. Rather, they are more celebratory than critically evaluative. When we say we have looked at more than 150 manuscripts with objectivity and rationality, we mean that each of these works is understood impressionistically, exclusively, and momentarily.”

According to Abdullah Ibrahim, there was a large percentage of novels written by women in the list of nominated books; however the process of “literary purification” culminated in the exclusion of a lot of works that did not exhibit “the artistic criteria.” That said, the short list does include one “lady” writer.

“We evaluate works based on artistic criteria exhibited in them, and not according to the writer or the country to which they belong,” Ibrahim said.

I find this statement extremely dismissive in terms of identity, and specifically gender identity, in relation to writing style. When societies marginalize and discriminate against their members according to identity, holding a constricted (read: male, masculine, and heteronormative) identity model as the “norm” or “default” against which “other” identities are evaluated, judged, and measured, who is to say that works by women do not exhibit “artistic elements” that intentionally deviate from the “male, masculine, heteronormative” criteria particularly due to their lived experience and identity position in society? Actually, Ibrahim never really defines the “artistic criteria” according to which he performs his “literary purification.”

In writing and composition theories, macroscopic (context, holistic text, narrative, etc) and microscopic (semantics, grammatical stylistics, vernacular, etc) elements tend to exhibit relations to a writer’s cognitive and psychological elements associated with identity (gender, sex, sexuality, culture, politics, nationality, etc). Is it not possible that women are perhaps capable of writing differently? Innovatively? And if they are, which is hard (and sexist) to logically deny, does this not mean that perhaps Ibrahim (if not others, as well) did not consider that when making this statement?

Identity may not (and perhaps should not) be an element in the interpretive and evaluative considerations we apply to texts; however, ignoring that identity perhaps plays a role, and that identity perhaps helps structure and shape a writer’s literary craft and aesthetic sensibility is irresponsible.

To mention the “large ratio” of women writers dismissed throughout the exclusion process definitely raises a red flag, for this reader and writer at least.

This is by no means a call for affirmative action or a quota for women writers. Not at all. It is, perhaps, a call for courtesy in how such panels approach literary criteria, express their methodology, and defend the gender imbalance apparent in several (if not all) aspects of this prize.

Another problematic issue is how judge Abdullah Ibrahim mentions a conflict between two methods of writing: what he describes as the “new eloquence” and the “traditional” method. He describes true mastery as the narrative representation of the reality of our societies, especially in terms of conflict and fragmentation/dissociation, and the inferior positioning of women in society. He describes the “new eloquence” as a style that the previous generation is not used to encountering.

Again, here we have a problematic positioning of style/craft into two camps: “new eloquence” and “traditional.” This is narrow, if not completely reductive. Experimentalism, which might be an aspect that Suleiman is implicitly referencing, does not manifest itself through one component of the literary text. Alongside the defensive and repetitive mention of privileging skill and literary craft over content and theme on the part of all attendees, this is a further narrow scope through which to view “literary criteria.”

In certain genres of experimental literatures, including the novel, content and form are not consistently easy to pull apart, co-dependence of aspects of the texts structurally–or de-constructionally– render form, shape, and aesthetics organically inseparable from theme, meaning, and content. For Suleiman (and others) to make this claim about 150+ books certainly lacks a responsible acknowledgment of the diverse particularities of literary production, consumption, and appreciation; a serious issue for an “international” prize that celebrates the contemporary Arabic novel.

Siwar Masannat is the managing editor at 7iber. She has an MFA in poetry from George Mason. Her poems have appeared in The Journal, VOLT, and New Orleans Review, among others.