Seven of the nine finalists for the 2016 Neustadt Prize are women — the highest percentage yet for the forty-five-year-old prize:
The $50,000 prize, which styles itself as “America’s Nobel,” has not yet selected an Arabophone winner, although Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan — one of the two males on the 2016 list — is on the shortlist for the second time.
Zaqtan is nominated this year by celebrated poet Wang Ping, with a particular hat-tip to his collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, trans. Fady Joudah, who nominated Zaqtan for the Neustadt in 2014.
In 2014, Zaqtan came to sudden English-language prominence, when he was, along with translator Fady Joudah, awarded the C$65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. That year, Zaqtan also had all manner of exciting visa troubles with North American governments. Ping was one of several writers who wrote an open letter urging the Canadian government to grant Zaqtan a visa to accept his Griffin Poetry Prize. She also wrote the judges’ citation for the Griffin:
What does poetry do? Nothing and everything, like air, water, soil, like birds, fish, trees, like love, spirit, our daily words … It lives with us, in and outside us, everywhere, all the time, and yet, we are too often oblivious of this gift. It’s a poet’s job to bring this gift out and back, this gift that makes us human again. And Mr. Zaqtan has done it. His poetry awakens the spirits buried deep in the garden, in our hearts, in the past, present and future. His singing reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes. His words turn dark into light, hatred into love, death into life. His magic leads us to the clearing where hope becomes possible, where healing begins across individuals, countries, races … and we are one with air, water, soil, birds, fish, trees … our daily words pregnant with beauty, and we begin to sing again till ‘ … the singer / and the song / are alike (Biography in Charcoal)’. This is Mr. Zaqtan’s only ‘profession’. It’s now also ours. About the translation: as a translator of poetry myself, I know the danger, frustration and the joy in the process of catching the fire from the original and delivering it through/into another language, another culture, another sentiment. Mr. Joudah delivered with such grace and power. My salute to Mr. Joudah, as translator to translator, as poet to poet, as doctor to doctor.
The seven women on the record-breaking list — which puts women’s writing in a clear majority position — are Can Xue (China), Caryl Churchill (England), Carolyn Forché (United States), Aminatta Forna (Scotland/Sierra Leone), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Canada), Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico), and Dubravka Ugresic (Croatia/The Netherlands).
Can Xue also took yesterday’s Best Translated Book Award for her novel The Last Lover, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen.
The other man on the finalists’ list is Scotland’s Don Paterson.
With the Neustadt, each writer is nominated by a particular judge, and then the judges are set to gather in October to choose their winner.
Cheers to the year when we have a Ruth Bader Ginsburg nine, and the finalists are Hoda Barakat, Najwa Barakat, Iman Humaydan, Iman Mersal, Sahar Khalifeh, NoViolet Bulawayo, Okwiri Oduor, Sefi Atta, and Mahasweta Devi. Or another nine, your choosing.
A video of Zaqtan reading from Like a Straw Bird: