IPAF Judge Sophia Vasalou on the 2017 Panel’s Criteria, Advice to Future Judges, and ‘Obligatory Sex Scenes’

Translator, scholar, and lecturer Sophia Vasalou was one of five judges for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction. She answered a wide array of questions about how she judged the books, 

Different judges have talked about working in different ways. (One judge, Sobhi al-Boustani, said he gave each book a letter grade on initial read.) How did you whittle down from the initial submissions to your longlist choices?

Sophia Vasalou: The decision about how to approach this daunting task was one we took collectively. Working against a spreadsheet that contained the full list of nominated books, we first gave every book a preliminary “hearing” with the aim of assigning it a rough numerical grade which essentially sifted books along the lines of: yes, no, possibly. Then at a second stage we focused more closely on the “yes”es and especially the “possibly”s, and the task was to fine-tune our initial grades further. We had access to this reservoir of grades before our longlist meeting, so by the time we met we had a pretty clear view of the novels that were definite contenders and the outliers that might generate debate.

Do you agree with Sahar Khalifeh’s statement — which seems to have caught a lot of people’s attention — that some of the submissions weren’t worth the paper they were printed on?

SV: There is a certain degree of hyperbole in this of course, and her statement no doubt caught people’s attention because of the context in which it was made (the award ceremony). But if we abstract from this context, I couldn’t disagree with her and I can’t see why anyone should be surprised. For every good book that made it to the longlist and shortlist there were literally dozens that didn’t meet the most basic literary standards.

Did you call any books in? Or you worked from the submissions only?

SV: Speaking for myself, I worked entirely from the submissions.

How difficult was it to agree on the initial longlist? Which part was the hardest — to agree on a longlist, a shortlist, or a winner?

SV: Definitely the last. The gems sparkled into view quickly, meaning that a core number of novels emerged speedily as the backbone of the two lists. This still left much room for disagreement of course, but there was actually a good deal of convergence in our views about many of the other books. There remained a clutch of more uncertain cases which required argument, and where someone’s mind had to be changed. And there were notable cases where this happened, and everyone changed their votes in response to a knock-down argument mounted by a single judge. It’s at the final stage, where the competition has narrowed to a point and there is only one prize left to give, that stronger feelings inevitably develop and argument becomes more hard-going.

How do you see the role of the prize? To highlight books that can be enjoyed widely by Arab readers? To celebrate innovation in the novel’s structure?

SV: Personally I have often looked to the prize as a compass, which points me in the direction of high-calibre literature I might otherwise underappreciate or remain unaware of. So these are the simplest terms in which I naturally see its value and role.

One of the frequent accusations is that there is a bias toward novels that have greater potential for portability, or translation. Is this a consideration, do you think, consciously, unconsciously, …?

SV: Well, I can’t speak for my unconscious biases; all I can say is that I only consciously caught myself considering how the novel would come across in translation in one of two cases. One was where the language called attention to itself with its complexity and stylistic pyrotechnics, raising interesting questions about the relation of content to form. This was the case for instance with Amir Tag Elsir’s novel The Witches’ Resort—though the portability of its distinctive style was certainly not a deciding factor in the final decision. Another was where a novel had already enchanted me so much that trying out its translation in my head was a means of expressing and inhabiting that enchantment.

If we get started on biases in fact, there are so many other biases one could talk about that are far more interesting than the reader-as-translator bias. Like the reader-as-judge bias for example. Because the fact is that you simply don’t read novels when you’re reading them with the serious aim of critically evaluating them the way you do when you’re reading for pleasure. There are certain things you might tolerate as a critical reader that you wouldn’t as an ordinary reader—you’re more likely to tolerate books that require patience and hard work, for example. Conversely, there are certain things you are less likely to tolerate: you’re more likely to fall rapidly out of sympathy with a book when you’ve picked up the first few flaws. Since you’re not reading in a leisurely way, you’re less likely to let a book transport you and to enter more sympathetically into its sensibility (and so more likely to be intolerant of sentimentality among other things). Unless it’s a great book—so flawless you can finally forget yourself. There were such books in our list. Not all of these are bad things, but they do constitute a kind of bias. Can you do away with this bias? I doubt it.

What did you love about A Small Death?

SV: As someone interested in the Islamic religious tradition, I loved its subject of course, and I appreciated the immense labour of reading that entered its ambitious project to breathe life not just into a thinker, but into an entire time and place (or places, in view of the ambulant quality of Ibn ‘Arabi’s life). This was a sweeping historical tapestry, evoked in a rich language with a vivid attention to detail and fine story-telling skill.

I also liked some of its more specific devices, such as the interpolation of narrative fragments tracking the life of the manuscript as it changed hands across time, empires rising and falling all around. Though this was actually one device that heightened a question I had about the book’s project, given its scrupulous avoidance of dwelling on Ibn ‘Arabi’s intellectual and indeed spiritual experiences. How would its premodern readers have experienced this text? Put differently, would they have recognized the voice of their spiritual master in it?

In one of the post-award events, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was asked: if Ibn ‘Arabi had read your novel, what would he have thought of it? Paraphrasing this question: if Ibn ‘Arabi had written his biography, is this the way he would have written it? And if not (evidently not!), what is the significance of this for the way we approach the book? These were just some of the questions I went away with. But the best books are the ones that raise questions in your mind and compel you to think.

Were there particular themes, images, or stylistic choices that showed up again and again, such that when you saw them, you thought, Mon Dieu, this again!

SV: In a word: the obligatory sex scenes! Can we have fewer sex scenes please, and these only when absolutely necessary?

What about the use of fos7a vs. 3ameya? What was the balance in submissions using a colloquial register for at least part of the work? Do you think a novel written in the colloquial could succeed with this prize? Judge Zhor Gourram said in 2014: “I do not think that writing in the colloquial works with this prize[.]”

SV: There were a number of works that used colloquial for the dialogue, an increasingly familiar stylistic choice. A novel written entirely in colloquial? It’s hard to speculate in the abstract, not least because I don’t think there is a single set of literary values that represent “The Prize” as such. There are only the literary values of the particular individuals who happen to be brought together in a given year to deliver their judgement. The values of these individuals differ, and they will also evolve in the process of judging. Would I have thought a priori that a novel about the plight of homosexuals in the Arab world could succeed with this prize? Faced with a novel of high caliber, you may find that your notions of what’s possible or acceptable undergo change.

Judge Gonzalo Fernandez Parilla told me, back in 2012, that the judges “had very different opinions. Tastes, I would say. Tastes.” Would you say the same of your panel? Did you agree on criteria by which you were judging the books? Or did each bring their own…tastes?

SV: As I understand, some panels in the past have drawn up explicit criteria before setting to work. We didn’t, and I can’t see in hindsight that we would have benefitted from having done so. But the alternative to a list of explicit criteria is not mere inarticulate “tastes.”

There was a shared sense of some of the main dimensions that carry weight in evaluating a novel, which emerged in the course of discussing and selecting particular novels: how convincingly characters are developed, for example, how cohesively the story is built up and how logically dramatic sequences unfold, how robust the literary language is, or how important or interesting the themes. This is not to deny that “taste”—in some sense of taste—plays a role. You discover this particularly when disagreement arises. This disagreement doesn’t take the form of “I like novel A!” or “I like novel B!” but “I like novel A because…” and “I like novel B because…”.

But if you still find that you disagree after you’ve all stated your “becauses,” it’s hard to know how to resolve that disagreement, at least within the available time frame. This disagreement might take different forms: one person for example may think that a certain type of realism has overriding value and another may not, or both may agree it has value but one may think that novel A is sufficiently realistic and the other may not. No amount of prior agreement on criteria would save you from that impasse (or perhaps, this impasse shows that prior agreement could only reach so far). There were certainly such moments in our discussion, particularly in the final meeting. It is a very interesting and very challenging kind of situation.

There was some chatter about how this woman-dominated jury would change the gender outlook of the prize, and yet the number of women’s books on the longlist & shortist are about the same as previous years. Were you surprised there weren’t more women’s books that made the longlist?

SV: Can I tell you honestly: during the first stages at least, when I would open a book, I would barely glance at the name of the author on the cover. It was: look at title, plunge into book, react to content. Who the author was, which country he or she came from, whether it was a he or a she—none of this figured on my radar until much later, and even then, it was never a relevant consideration. There is room for unconscious biases of course, since you’re more likely to notice the names of authors whom you already know, and given the existing gender bias, you are more likely to be familiar with male authors, and thus perhaps to give them a more attentive hearing. There may be other biases at work too. I don’t know that I have an intelligent insight to give on this question.

I heard some surprise, for instance, about Elias Khoury’s Children of the Ghetto not taking the prize. Did the judges reach a point where they were unanimous?

SV: I’m sure other readers felt other kinds of surprises too. I can’t enter into our discussion of specific books, but unanimous we certainly weren’t. How strange would that have been?

In 2014, after judging the IPAF, judge Mehmet Hakkı Suçin offered some advice to young novelists. But if you could give advice instead to publishers, and to the publishing industry, what would it be?

SV: Probably the advice that everyone else has been busy drilling into their ears: more aggressive editing of texts, more critical decisions about what to publish.

To people who are asked to be IPAF judges in future years — what advice would you give them?

SV: The best advice I never gave myself is not to tune into the tittle tattle of the press about the prize during the judging process. It was only after the event that some of the running commentary came to my attention, which also involved criticisms about the choice of judges, including myself. These criticisms are of course as old as the prize itself, but it’s best to shield oneself from them. Even though I was personally aware of this tradition of controversy, it is always dispiriting to be the immediate subject of it. In any case, these are criticisms that should not concern a judge, and that a judge is not responsible for confronting. Having been chosen to serve on the panel, you simply do the best and most conscientious job you can.

Other advice? I suppose mainly to be prepared for a long journey that passes through many stages. It is at times grueling, given the volume of material to be absorbed, particularly until the shortlist is produced. Personally I didn’t take a single weekend off work, except maybe a couple of days over the Christmas period, from the end of last summer and until very recently. Reading a single good novel at a leisurely pace can be a pleasurable experience, but your work as judge involves consuming a non-optional slew of novels of dubious quality at breakneck speed, so it’s a very different experience altogether. But it is also stimulating, intense, and enriching, as you realise particularly when the curtain of the experience begins to fall. With the curtain-fall behind me, I feel almost wistful that I can’t be hitting the restart button all over again. But then again, I can think of a thing or two I might do with my free time.