The 2 Arab Writers Up for the Alt Literary Nobel

In the absence of a Nobel Prize for Literature this year — sunk, at least for one year, under the weight of allegations of sexual harassment, coercion, and violence against Jean-Claude Arnault — Swedes have organized an Alt Nobel:

Journalist Alexandra Pascalidou helped form a new academy of more than 100 Swedish writers, actors, journalists and other cultural figures, which will give out the “New Literature Prize” on the same schedule as the old Nobel: a winner announced in October, with a presentation and celebration in December.

Their mission is slightly different from the Nobel’s. According to the Swedish publication The Local, “Literature is the antidote to silence and censorship – so we want to empower it in these turbulent times, when regimes around the world try to control not only the words but also the minds of people.”

And their process is very different. Rather than a secretive list of authors, all 47 being considered have been published online, and audience vote will play a part in who makes the shortlist. According to the website, voting closes August 14, and:

Your votes will single out three authors for the final judging by the expert jury. A fourth author will enter the final entirely based on the nominations from the librarians. Of these authors, two will be female and two will be male.

The winner is set to be announced October 14.

Like the old Nobel, the list of 47 is considerably weighted toward Swedish writers. There are 12 Swedish writers out of 47; more than a quarter. That’s a lot for the world’s 91st most spoken language. The US — some of whose writers and critics have complained of being excluded by the Swedish Academy — has the most, at 13. The UK has 4, Canada has 3, and most of the others are Europeans, with the exception of Arundhati Roy (India), Haruki Murakami (Japan), Amos Oz (Israel), Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenya), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria).

The list was crowd-sourced from Sweden’s librarians, and there are a number of crowd-pleasers, such as Murakami, Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Elena Ferrante, Nnedi Okorafor, as well as a few perennial Nobel candidates, such as Ngugi wa Thiongo.

There are no Arabic-language writers, although also none from China, no Indian-language writers, no Spanish-language writers, nor Russian or Farsi. It is a sort of world literature where the world is tightly focused on how the literary arts — mostly the novel — lives and breathes in Swedish and English, and, to a lesser extent, French.

The two Arab writers:

Algerian-French writer Nina Bouraoui is author of more of a dozen novels, many of them works of autofiction, with an emphasis on memory, childhood, and celebrity culture. Her Tomboy (2007) was translated into English by Marjorie Attignol Salvodon and Jehanne-Marie Gavarini — a novel of navigating an identity between Algeria and France. Her Forbidden Vision (1995) was translated by K. Melissa Marcus.

Popular and acclaimed Tunisian-Swedish novelist and playwright Jonas Hassan Khemiri is much more familiar to Anglophone readers; his work has appeared in The New Yorker, and he had an open letter to Sweden’s Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask, about racial profiling, that went viral in Swedish and appeared prominently in 20-odd languages, including English.

His satiric, sharp-eyed novel Montecore was translated by from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles and longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. In 2013, Khemiri’s play I Call My Brothers was performed at the Arcola Theatre in London in Swedish with English surtitles. There were closed captions in English, Arabic, and Swedish. Like Montecore, it’s also interested in language, family, racism, and identity.

I Call My Brothers also received an English langague production at the Gate Theatre.

In the end, this new prize is an interesting experiment, although it falls into some of the same potholes as the International Dublin Literary Award, formerly known as the IMPAC, with a focus on the popular, the well-known, and those authors who have been translated into English. The prize’s gender balance is certainly new, although far easier to effect than to show an interest in how literature lives in unfamiliar places.