At the time of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist announcement, ArabLit and 7iber had interviews with four of the five judges. One judge was missing, Mehmet Hakkı Suçin; he was unable to make the events in Amman because of health troubles. He graciously followed up with an email interview.
Mehmet Hakkı Suçin: At the beginning of the process, we discussed as a committee the criteria on which we would rely in the process of reviewing the books. I said to myself: Is it possible for us to define criteria with which to choose one book over another? And indeed, I had set definitions to use during the evaluation process.
But after conversations with my colleagues, I realized that relying on definitions such as these to evaluate a work of literature can be used to flatter or simplify the work. I believe that just reading about 50 or 100 pages from a novel overall is enough to get an opinion on it. When I read the amount mentioned of a story, I asked: Did it draw me in? Did it prompt me to continue reading? Is it worthy to be entered among the first 16 stories?
As a reader, I wanted it to make me curious, and to be entangled by its structure, and I want to find within it events that made a plot. It was imperative that the story raised questions in my mind regarding its composition. If, as a reader, these questions were not created in my mind from the very first pages of the book, then it was in danger of losing my interest. And this means one of the signals which point towards the book being unsuccessful.
I remember that I sifted through the stories and placed them in a special corner in my office.
It is interesting that three of the books which entered the shortlist are ones which I came across among in the first thirty that I read. I remember that I sifted through the stories and placed them in a special corner in my office. I added many other stories to that corner. Based on what we had discussed with my fellow members of the judging committee, we divided the novels into three groups. I called the novels whose distinguishing features accorded to my taste in reading and which I imagined would enter the longer list “accepted novels.” And I divided the “accepted” novels into three groups: A, B, and C. I marked the subdivisions with a plus or a minus sign. For example, if one of the works from group B was more distinguished than the rest of the novels in the group, I would put it in the subdivision of B+.
This helped me a great deal when I prepared my own version of the longlist. And because I had read the works which I had entered into the shortlist in the first screening process, I had an idea about the level of the novels. And in this way, I formed a picture in my head regarding the stronger, middling, and weaker novels between all the novels I had read.
AL: Were the common failings to some of the books? If you could speak to young Arab novelists, is there any advice you would give them?
MHS: To be honest, I do not see in myself “prestige” to be offering advice. I believe that my fellow committee members are more experienced in this field. However, it is possible for me to infer some things from the novels which I read as a “critical reader.”
When I review the novels which I found to be weak at first reading, I see the following: Some of the novels are at the level of young people; some of them pour out the facts without going through the filter of imagination, which is required by the art of storytelling. Some are classified in the box of target novels. Some of them give the impression that they are “drafts” or first books. Some of them are structurally weak despite dealing with important topics. This is what comes to my mind right now.
As for the advice to young novelists…. It is imperative that novelists work on leaving behind role models or previous blueprints before anything else.
As for the advice to young novelists, I’d like to say that the novel above anything else is the result of a creative process. Creativity is freedom from old habits and the introduction of something which isn’t as yet available or dealing with a topic which has been dealt with previously in a new way. It is imperative that novelists work on leaving behind role models or previous blueprints before anything else. And exceed the limits imposed by the habits fuelling creativity.
On the other hand, the novel is not the arena in which information is disseminated. Similarly, it is not the ground on which the novelist pours into the work his own devices and memories in an immature way. It is the duty of the young novelists to choose their topics very carefully. The biggest problem the young writer faces is the lack of control of his pen, and to leave himself drifting in the stream of consciousness, or the chaos behind the demons of creativity. It is his duty not to hasten to explain everything all at once.
Attempting to explain everything means not saying anything. The presence of a topic means belief in an idea. It is impossible to write on an idea with warmth and sincerity if belief in that idea does not emerge from the heart. If the writer does not believe in the topic, then the characters of his story will not have dynamic personalities. I want to remind young writers with the advice which is oft given: Do not narrate about your characters, but review it. Stay away from templates. Move away from pre-provided literature. Do not turn aside from the natural. All of this should always remain in their head if they are to persuade the reader to enter into the world of their novel.
AL: Did the group agree on any particular criteria (linguistic, formal character development, narrative arc) in whittling down to first 16, then 6? What process did you use for choosing the list?
This stage of the evaluation was democratic, fair, and transparent, as much as it possibly could be.
MHS: As I mentioned previously, we discussed in detail the topic of criteria at the start of the process. However, in the end, each member of the committee had formed his own set of criteria. It was very easy to pick nominees, because there were weaker novels. When we finished reading and compared our lists, the selected novels from the committee were largely similar. Although the rule is: “No discussion on the taste and colours,” it is possible for us to speak of success in the case where five people reach a consensus about a wide spectrum of novels. Of course, there were novels on which not all fully agreed. And we discussed these novels transparently. We expressed our views frankly, and we reached a joint decision resulting from the evaluation. This stage of the evaluation was democratic, fair, and transparent, as much as it possibly could be.
AL: Are there any red lines the judges would not cross in selecting a book?
MHS: I can’t take the fame of the writer into account, or the author’s sex, or the publisher. This is a red line in the evaluation of the novels for the IPAF. Except for this, it is left to each member of the jury to establish his own red lines.
AL: Could you give some words about each of the shortlisted novels that indicates what you (personally) found particularly special about it?
MHS: No Knives in the Kitchens of this City: The untold story of the Arab and especially the Syrian reality.
Blue Elephant: Prospects for a new development in the Arabic novel.
Frankenstein in Baghdad: The what’s-its-name curse looks for revenge for those murdered, whether on the criminal or the innocent.
A Rare Blue Bird that Follows Me: The metaphorical adventures of Zeina in prison and the real search for her husband Aziz in prison.
Tashari: Women in an Iraqi family gathered together in an electronic graveyard.
The Journeys of ‘Abdi: An adventure to arrive at knowledge/the truth.
AL: Were there any commonalities to the women’s books that were submitted that made them stand out as women’s writing? Were there trends in women’s writing that were different from men’s?
MHS: If there are particular themes common to the writers, then it could be the subject of an academic article, but I don’t think these trends can be the criteria for the selection of a good novel. Trends can be found in the book, and not only in the writers. I am a person who strongly advocates for women writers…. [But] Inaam Kachachi’s novel isn’t on the shortlist because it was written by a woman, but because the members of the jury found her novel successful.
AL: Was there anything that surprised you about being an IPAF judge? About the submissions, about the process?
I don’t know about other awards, but I believe in the integrity of the selection of the IPAF jury.
MHS: I have followed the International Prize for Arabic Fiction as an academic who follows Arabic literature. I try to know the writers who are on the list. But I never thought I would be a member of the jury that awards the IPAF prize. In fact, I don’t know any of the people in charge of the award. This inclusion in the jury was a surprise to me. I don’t know about other awards, but I believe in the integrity of the selection of the IPAF jury. I felt myself, during the evaluation period, completely independent and free. I thank the management for this award and its principled positions, and it should continue that the traditions of this award remain fair.
Thanks to Hiba Mohamed and Muhammad Aladdin for their parts in the translation.