5 Questions: On the Hybrid and Collective Writing Competition

Organizers have extended the deadline for “Europe’s newest, boldest literary prize,” an award for hybrid and collective writing called “To Speak Europe in Different Languages”:

The prize, co-founded by Sulaiman Addonia and Vanni Biannconi of Specimen Press, has five “focus languages” in 2020: Somali, English, Amharic, Arabic, and Tigrinya.

Addonia answered a few questions about the prize.

Could you tell me something about how this came about? Why a literary prize (v. some other way of encouraging hybridity)? What are the positive ways in which a prize can function?

Sulaiman Addonia: In 2019, I was invited by the Babel Literature and Translation Festival for an Industry Meeting of festival directors. I had just arrived in Bellinzona when my partner and I decided to have a coffee before checking in our hotel. We ordered coffee when we saw Vanni Bianconi – from Babel Literature and Translation Festival – walking by. It was in that cafe surrounded by mountains that Vanni and I lost ourselves in a deep conversation about languages.

Vanni has a longstanding interest in languages; his book London as a Second Language and all the work around Specimen and Babel testify to that. For myself, as a writer of immigrant background, arriving to the UK as a teen, I have experienced that the European literature and art institutions have no interest in many migrant languages ​​that are spoken on the continent. In Brussels, where I live, for example, there are over 182 different nationalities making Brussels the second most cosmopolitan city in the world, after Dubai. But when you visit art centres and festivals in Brussels, only the main languages of the country (Dutch & French), and sometimes English dominate.

Immigrant languages spoken on the street and homes across the city are not heard in those spaces. The Asmara Addis festival tries to address this by programming writers in several languages often spoken but not recognised in Europe. Before we knew it, we started discussing the idea of launching a prize to celebrate linguistic diversity in Europe, and focus on the hybridization that occurs when languages and communities mix. We wanted the prize to be open to many languages and thereby eradicating the dominance of one language over the other – recognising that Europe today consists of many languages. So for the first year of the prize, the focus languages will include Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Tigrinya as well as English, recognising that these are language spoken by many people in Europe.

Must the submitted texts be text-only? Are photos, drawings allowed?

SA: At the moment only text can be submitted.

You say that the judges will reflect the prize’s ethos, can you explain a bit about what that ethos is?

SA: By that we mean the ethos of hybridization, one that encourages richness in movement, in a linguistic or cultural sense, one that embraces an openness of mind that allows you to experience the same thing from different angles. This also applies to our judges. They are judges who either, though their work, life or interest — have been hybrid, immersed in more than one country, genre, philosophy. There is a vast richness beyond being an expert in art or literature that fascinates me about our judges. Life experience is as important to being a judge of a hybrid competition.

Does the pieces’ very hybridity . . . make them harder to judge against one another? Vs. looking at all short stories, all nonfiction essays? What will you and the other judges be looking for in the pieces?

SA: No doubt judging Hybrid prizes is much more difficult than a straightforward short story, essays and so on. But I am confident that we have the ability and versatility amongst our judges, as I explained in the point above, to make them appropriate judges of a rather interesting but difficult prize.

It’s interesting that you have focus languages of Amharic, Arabic, English, Somali, Tigrinya & a thematic focus on Europe, reversing the literary gaze of European languages on Amharic-, Arabic-, Somali-, & Tigrinya-writing populations. Will the thematic focus change in future years, or only the languages?

SA: We will be discussing this later this year, but we started off with this idea of changing focus languages, but Vanni, as I am, is very keen on playing around with changing the thematic focus too. I think that’s part of what makes it very interesting working on a prize like this, you have to embrace hybridity and accept that realities as well as illusions are never fixed.

Organizers added that the award ceremony is still set to take place in September 2020, at the Babel Festival of Literature and Translation in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

More on how to submit at the Specimen website.