Lebanese author Hoda Barakat has won this year’s $50,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for her epistolary novel The Night Mail (Dar al-Adab), only the second woman to get the award.
Judges picked Barakat from a six-strong shortlist featuring a record four female authors. She was announced as the winner at a packed ceremony in Abu Dhabi’s Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel on Tuesday night (23rd April).
In addition to winning $50,000, funding will be provided for the English translation of The Night Mail. An English edition has already been secured by Oneworld, scheduled to appear in 2020, and Barakat said the book, with its themes of migration, would be "very interesting" to readers in the current UK climate.
Her novel tells the stories of its characters through letters written to their relatives in Lebanon, interconnecting and overlapping during the course of the work. They left not only because of war but their home’s painful past and uncertain future. Its theme is described as “one of deep questioning and ambiguity, where boundaries have been erased, and old places and homes lost forever”.
In her speech, Barakat, who left Lebanon during its civil war and now lives in France, revealed she nearly did not enter the prize this year after only being longlisted in 2013 for her novel The Kingdom of This Earth (Dar al-Adab). However, she said Booker Prize Foundation chairman Jonathan Taylor helped convince her to enter again. She said: "The Arabic language is more imprortant to me than any prize."
Speaking afterwards, she explained: "I don't seek exposure, I don't seek popularity."
"I don't care about statistics and numbers," she went on. "If I sell 15 books it's fine, if I sell 50 books then that's better."
She also praised the othert shortlisted novels, saying: "This is proof that Arabic fiction is growing in position and stature to an equal level with other novels.
"We're raising the level of our language and we must have faith in our Arabic language. It's not a handicap for a writer. I think we can be an example to follow."
Chair of judges Charafdine Majdouline said: “The Night Mail is a highly accomplished novel that stands out for its condensed economy of language, narrative structure, and capacity to convey the inner workings of human beings. By choosing to use techniques well-known in novel writing, Barakat faced a challenge, but she succeeded in creatively innovating within the tradition to successfully convince the reader.”
Professor Yasir Suleiman, chair of the board of IPAF trustees, added: “Using an epistolary structure to deal with displacement and its effects on the refugee experience, the novel exposes us to the precarious nature of human existence in a world in drift. The protagonists’ search for a common thread unites and separates them with equal cruelty. An intense and disciplined novel, The Night Mail will outlive the worlds that animated it. It is destined to speak to readers in multiple tongues because of the intensely human condition it evokes.”
Born in Beirut in 1952, Barakat has worked in teaching and journalism and currently lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs. In 2002 she received the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres before being awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ six years later. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and was longlisted for the IPAF in 2013.
At the time she was shortlisted this year, Barakat said she wanted to write the novel after seeing scenes of migrants fleeing their countries. The author said she wanted to give voice “to brittle lives, which are judged by others without understanding them or investigating what brought them to their current state”.
At a press conference after the ceremony, chair of the board of trustees Yasir Suleiman was asked several questions about an alleged leak of the result to the Arabic edition of the Independent, which published a story revealing the winner before it was officially announced. Suleiman stressed he did not believe a leak had taken place, challenging anyone with evidence to come forward, but said the incident would be investigated with "all objectivity and transparency".
He said: "If we find anything that would hurt the integrity of the IPAF we'll deal with it. We don't want to have any dead corpse because a dead body would have a very bad smell after some time. It will rot and it will have a very bad smell."
Other books shortlisted for the prize, each receiving $10,000, included previous nominees Iraqi writer Inaam Kachachi for The Outcast (Dar al-Jadid) and Syrian author Shahla Ujayli for Summer with the Enemy (Difaf Publishing).
Also nominated were Egyptian novelist Adel Esmat for The Commandments (Kotob Khan), Moroccan political anthropologist Mohammed Al-Maazuz for What Sin Caused her to Die? (Cultural Book Centre) and Jordanian writer Kafa Al-Zou’bi for her fifth novel Cold White Sun (Dar al-Adab).
Now in its 12th year, the prize's four nominations for female writers was double the number shortlisted at any other time in its history. The only previous female winner was Raja Alem, who was given the award jointly in 2011 for her book The Dove’s Necklace (Duckworth Overlook). Barakat and shortlisted authors will appear at several events at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, which opens on Wednesday (24th April).
Last year’s winner of the prize, given annually for works published in Arabic, was The Second War of the Dog by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Arab Scientific Publishers).
The award is sponsored by the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi and is run with the support, as its mentor, of the Booker Prize Foundation in London.