Yasmine Motawy on the Growing Space for Arabic Literature for Young People, Globally

Yasmine Motawy, a children’s-literature scholar and part of the newly reborn Egyptian Board on Books for Young People (EBBY) is one of the judges for this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Awards, for which Egyptian novelist Affaf Tobbala was a nominee

Scholar Yasmine Motawy. Photo courtesy of Motawy.
Scholar Yasmine Motawy. Photo courtesy of Motawy.

Certainly Tobbala has been much-acclaimed: She’s won a Sheikh Zayed Award for Al-Bayt wa al-Nakhlah (The House and the Palm Tree, 2009), an Anna Lindh prize for Al-Ain (The Eye, 2010), and an Etisalat Award for Oud El-Sanabel (2013). But what in particular made EBBY put forward Tobbala? What do you think makes her work particularly special?

Yasmine Motawy: Tobbala has had a consistent career in writing for the last decade, producing one or two works a year. As a professional writer, she has been involved in the community to promote reading and has been recognized for the quality of her works through a number of national and international recognitions and awards. Her works are well received by children and she increasingly cooperates with excellent illustrators to ensure high quality book production.

The shortlist — announced yesterday — is quite international. Authors are: Cao Wenxuan from China, Louis Jensen from Denmark, Mirjam Pressler from Germany, Ted van Lieshout from the Netherlands, and Lois Lowry from the US. While ilustrators are: Rotraut Susanne Berner from Germany, Pejman Rahimizadeh from Iran, Alessandro Sanna from Italy, Suzy Lee from the Republic of Korea, and Marit Törnqvist from the Netherlands.

Does an author’s work have to be in translation? Does ever IBBY-affiliated organization put forward a nominee (so LBBY for instance may have nominated Fatima [Sharafeddine] and the UAEBBY nominated Noura [Noman])? How many nominees in total, and how do you go through their work?

YM: This year, the jury had to look at the works of 28 authors and 29 illustrators nominated by their national sections from 34 countries. Jurors receive the books either in physical or electronic format depending on the abilities of the national section, and we had from April 2015 to January 2016 to evaluate them.

We had a longlist by October, and the jurors were constantly in dialogue before the closed sessions in Basel last week where the decisions were made by wide consensus. It was an honor and a wonderful experience for all involved. The large YA novels need to have at least one translated chapter, the picture books need to be translated in their entirety. The quality of the translation was key in the decision making, as there were books in languages that few jurors could read.

How many Arab countries have IBBY-affiliated organizations? 

YM: Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates have national chapters of IBBY.

How can EBBY continue to help Egyptian authors develop a thriving community of authors for young people & a thriving community of young readers? How to foster and encourage more great Egyptian novels for young people? 

YM: EBBY’s goals are stated on our website (http://www.ebby-egypt.com/what-is-ebby.html) and one of the ways we would like to approach these key issues is by being a hub and a forum for all stakeholders in promoting quality writing for children and an more robust readership. We would rather be the space through which these parties are brought together to think through these issues openly and democratically rather than thinking alone.

In the meantime, we offer workshops and consultancy, a space for reviewing books, writing competitions, cooperation with private and state organzations to promote writing and reading, maintain a presence in national and international book gatherings and work with IBBY to internationally promote great Egyptian books for the honor list and other recognition (Egypt’s 2016 selection here) as well as submit proposals for major reading projects.
What will it take? Synergistic collaboration from writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, librarians, translators, NGOs and state cultural and educational players…