2020 Arab American Book Awards Include Award’s First-ever Prize for Graphic Memoir

The winners of the fourteenth annual Arab American Book Awards — sponsored by the Arab American National Museum — were announced today. For the first time in the prize’s history, a graphic memoir was among the winners:

Prize organizers announced winners and honorable mentions in four categories. In a first for the prize, this year’s Children/Young Adult Award went to Filipino-Egyptian-American artist, journalist, and writer Malaka Gharib, for her graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream (2019).

Gharib said, over email, that the award was particularly meaningful because, “One of my deepest insecurities in life has been whether I was Arab enough.” She added:

I felt unsure, sometimes, whether I could really call myself one because I was only half, felt like I didn’t know as much about being Arab as my Arab American friends and family members. I didn’t speak Arabic that well, didn’t know the customs as well although I spent every summer of my childhood there. That was something I wrote about in my book, and was a bit afraid of revealing. But winning this honor from the Arab American Book Awards validates for me my experience as an Arab American — that whatever I knew about being Arab, whatever fears and worries I had about this side of me — that was enough. 

Prize organizers write that Gharib’s book, which navigates adolescence in a Filipino and Egyptian household, is a “reminder that there is more than one American Dream.”

Other works were awarded in the categories of Non-Fiction, Fiction, and Poetry. 

This year, there were two winners of the Evelyn Shakir Non-fiction Award: When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History (2019) by Massoud Hayoun, and Between the Ottomans and the Entente: The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925 (2019) by Stacy D. Fahrenthold.

Prize organizers write that When We Were Arabs — the author’s debut work, and a reclamation of his family’s Jewish Arab identity — “showcases the role of memory in how we understand history and construct identity.” 

Hayoun said, over email that, “For me, the day the Arab American National Museum reached out to tell me When We Were Arabs won was the best day of my life so far. And it happened in 2020. So let that serve as proof to people that radical love — the sort represented by the book and this honor from the museum — can commute this horror story of a year into something beautiful beyond our hopes.”

He added: “This is the only award that could possibly matter to me, as anyone who has read When We Were Arabs is well aware.”

This year’s George Ellenbogen Poetry Award winner was Zaina Alsous for A Theory of Birds (2019), which also won the 2019 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. Prize organizers write that: “The birds, found on every page, become a metaphor for the violence perpetrated on othered bodies and Earth’s ecology as the poems encourage a decolonized mind.”

The fiction award went to Laila Lalami’s acclaimed novel The Other Americans (2019); Lalami previously co-won an Arab American Book Award in 2015 for her novel The Moor’s Account.

Diana Abouali, Director of the Arab American National Museum, said in a prepared statement that, “The submissions this year reflected the increasingly rich variety and diversity of Arab American experiences.”

There were also four honorable mentions:

Children/Young Adult: Other Words for Home (Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins), by Jasmine Warga

Non-Fiction: Women of the Midan: The Untold Stories of Egypt’s Revolutionaries (Indiana University Press, 2019), by Sherine Hafez

Fiction: A Woman is No Man (Harper / HarperCollins, 2019), by Etaf Rum

Poetry: Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019), by Marwa Helal

Although the museum remains closed in response to the pandemic, the annual Book Awards ceremony will shift to an online platform in mid-November, 2020. Details will be forthcoming from the AANM.

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