Why Renee Hayek Should Win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

There was speculation, when the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist was first announced, that 2017 might finally be Lebanese novelist Renee Hayek’s year. But her sharp, funny The Year of the Radio didn’t even make the shortlist:

By Perween Richards

Renee Hayek, from the IPAF website.

Renee Hayek’s novels have been longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) three times. Prayer for the Family was longlisted in the prize’s second year, 2009; A Short Life in 2011, and The Year of the Radio in 2017. Once again, Hayek’s novel failed to make the shortlist. It’s a mystery to me why this author does not get the recognition she deserves, but perhaps it’s best not to talk about logic or reason when talking about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Renee Hayek was born in southern Lebanon and studied philosophy at the Lebanese University before embarking on a career in journalism, literary translation and teaching. She has published two collections of short stories and ten novels. Ten novels!

The Year of the Radio (2015) is set in contemporary Lebanon, and its protagonist Yara Ghazal is a speech therapist who lives with her parents in Beirut. A shrewd observer of her world and the environment she grew up in, Hayek’s characters are realistic, funny, and exasperating. We may not always like them, but we can’t blame them for being themselves.

Hayek’s prose manages to portray a narrator who is of this world, but not quite. Her storytelling conveys Yara’s sense of isolation and feelings of inadequacy, and the constant comparisons to her older sisters drives the point home. Yara’s name is only mentioned once.

Her narrative voice is honest, and she successfully balances the solemn tone of the novel with the comedy in her dialogue with the parents. Despite her surroundings, Yara takes control of her destiny – she really does just want to be alone. Outside of boring routine, it seems Yara’s generation has nothing to look forward to. The older generation had the war, which her sister mentions, but Yara is too young to remember it. Yara’s generation is aimless, broke, and still struggling for independence from their families and trying to find a decent job.

Yara might be accused of narcissism, and being single-minded to the point of self-destruction. Even her choice of men is self-destructive, as she gravitates towards a relationship that isn’t likely to succeed, likely because her desire to be alone is overpowering. She goes to cafes, bars, restaurants, and whether she is with her friends or not, she is alone. Yet independence, great in theory, is irrelevant unless you have the finances to support yourself.

Pulling the reader along

The story’s beginning immediately draws us in, as Yara mentions an accident that took place on the first page. It’s a brilliant trick to attract our attention and keep us reading. She shows us her what her parents are like immediately, by relaying how the death of the young man driving the car is a tragic event, but one her mother exploits to cause more drama and somehow makes all about her. The characters are well developed and realistic; nothing seems implausible or clichéd. The author is in full control of the story and know where she wants to take it.

Speech therapy is misunderstood in the schools, and Yara suspects her attitude and appearance makes it hard for her to get work. Yara is offered her own radio show at a local station, where she is expected to talk to families about issues with children and to meet kids one-on-one for therapy. She doesn’t tell her family, but they find out through a neighbor. Her mother becomes angry at Yara for hiding her new job, but she soon forgives her after the show’s a success. Yara’s mother is a teacher and had hopes Yara would follow in her footsteps, but Yara doesn’t get a teaching job and she doesn’t want to tutor. Her salary and the extra money isn’t enough, and while Yara enjoys working with the kids, her enthusiasm dies when her boss suggests she offer marriage counseling, too, something she is not qualified to do.

Her family life is stressful, with her parents blaming her for everything that’s wrong with them. Her parents constantly compare her to her sisters and encourage her to get married. When her older sister’s marriage falls apart, Yara’s parents expect her to convince Claude to reconcile with her husband, but she supports her sister and they become closer. The sensible Claude, a pharmacist and mother of two boys, divorces her unfaithful husband, but is devastated when her sons choose to live with their father for a while. The third sister, Rita, lives abroad with her French partner and doesn’t keep in touch until her partner leaves her.

Yara’s close friends are Alia, Sabine, and Crystal. They go to parties every night and are constantly trying to introduce her to eligible men, but she refuses. She measures everyone against her ex-boyfriend Ronnie, with whom she is still very much in love.

Proclamations of love

Yara begins to receive text messages from an unknown number proclaiming love for her, which leads her to speculate that it’s the father of a boy she’s helping. When she confronts him, he doesn’t say anything — but we’re led to believe it is him.  When the father of another boy insists on dating her, she relents and they spend more time together. The relationship makes her happy for a while, even though she keeps it secret, until she realizes that he is still in love with his ex-wife, and he breaks it off with Yara. Heartbroken but unwilling to do anything else, she sinks into a deep depression made worse by the loss of her job as a result of low ratings.

Eventually, Alia disappears, Sabine moves back in with her parents after a destructive romance with a married doctor, and Crystal marries her long-time Muslim boyfriend Ahmed. Claude’s boys move back in with her, and their father remarries.

The book ends as it began, with an accident and her hospitalization, which propels Yara to change her life, an opportunity she missed the first time around. Yara is hit by a car while she’s out walking one day, but she takes some painkillers and that’s all. Days later, she wakes up in a hospital with her parents angry with her for not telling them she was hit, and the discovery that she was suffering from a mysterious stomach bug.

Months later, we find Yara living in a school outside Beirut. She is working at a school for children with special needs, where she’s living a reclusive and happy life.

Hayek’s greatest skill is in balancing all the themes that you might expect from a “Lebanese” novel into one. There are dysfunctional families, immigration, the economic and political situation, rebelling against the culture, and the repercussions of the civil war. Most importantly, money, and the effect the lack of money has on your aspirations. The novel seems to tell us that what a woman needs to achieve true independence is money. An issue that is more important now than it has ever been.

Perween Richards is a literary translator from Arabic.  She attended the Translate at City summer school in London in 2016, and was one of two winners of the summer school’s annual competition, sponsored by Comma Press. 

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