Reflections on my Experience as a Judge of a Literary Prize

I was delighted to accept Kuwaiti author Taleb al-Rifai’s invitation to join the judging panel of Al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, sponsored by the American University in Kuwait and Al-Multaqa al-Thaqafi: Cultural Circle, found and managed by Dr al- Rifai.

Prominent Moroccan author Ahmad Al-Madini was appointed as a chair of the panel. My colleagues on the judging panel were: Egyptian author Ezzat al-Kamhawi, Iraqi writer and critic Salima Salih, and Kuwaiti writer and critic Ali Al Enazzi.

On 27 April, 2016 in Abu Dhabi the panel met in the presence of Dr Taleb al Riai, founder of the prize, to set the criteria for the selection. We agreed that on the following yardsticks: content and creativity in presenting it, language (accuracy, beauty etc.), use of imagination, impact (emotional and otherwise), and overall vision.

What made the process successful is that both the chairman and members of the judging paned observed total confidentiality, and never disclosed the procedure or discussed participants and their works with any outside parties. This resulted in a first round free of xenophobia, cliquism, preferential treatment and immune to outside influences.

As an academic and writer of fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading one hundred and eighty-four collections of Arabic short stories and exploring the literary map of the Arab world farther.

However, the amount of simple and simplistic works that get published in the Arab world is staggering and perhaps one reasons behind that is the way the publishing industry functions and publications processed. In many cases, authors pay publishers to get published not the other way round, which eschews standards and corrupts the measures commissioning editors apply when selecting a work. Alas most works that see the light should have been left in the dark. Another symptom of the lack of professionalism in publishing is the number of language and typographical mistakes. So, the author pays to be published and the publishing house spends very little on copyediting and/or printing the text and the result is poor indeed.

Most of the collections are either reportage, autobiography, memories, or confessional writing thinly disguised as fiction. They are hurried, shallow, crude and single-layered with little dramatisation and riddled with clichés without any plot or structure. In a few cases pornography is superimposed on the text and sexual scenes are not justified within the text or the context.

The description in most collections is stilted and the characters one-dimensional and static. And in many cases, you encounter sentimentality and emotions that are not justified within the text, therefore, could not be evoked in the recipient reader, a lack of what T.S. Eliot called the ‘objective correlative.’ Most collections fail at both form and content levels, which are interconnected of course.

There is a confusion concerning literary genres for prose is not poetry and no matter how beautifully-written a paragraph is that does not turn into a short story. Some writers use the twist or the surprising ending of poetry in prose. But poetic prose does not turn a text into a short story, which is a specific literary genre with its own prerequisites. There is also some over-writing and flexing of linguistic muscles without much success.

There is a marked difference in the levels of works considered for the prize and unevenness within the collections themselves. Many authors are full of good intentions, but they rarely realise them. Many authors suffer from shortness of breath and sloppiness where the movement of the hand is not completed. A disjointed literary work can be classified as ‘trauma literature’, where there are absences, but the text is normally complete and realises its full potential. But that does not apply to some of the collections I have read. Writers, in some cases, are not distant enough from their material so the they could turn them into resonant and meaningful literary texts and many use writing as exorcism or a way to vent out anger

Luckily a few authors master the art of writing fiction and in control of their tools. They use a multitude of techniques: the interior monologue, steam of consciousness, different perspectives, unreliable narrators, mixing of registers and voices, operatic corals, intertwining between fantasy and reality, intertextuality, and mythology. Some can be classified as modernist and others as postmodernists and very few are feminist. Some texts are original, creative and the imagination of their writer soars high.

In his multi-media collection “مصحة الدمى” Doll’s Infirmity”, Moroccan author Anis Arafai challenges the boundaries between fiction, essay writing, reportage and photography and the result is a tour de force. The collection cannot be classified as a photoessay or under graphic literature for that would be a reduction. Some of the prose rises to the level of poetry. Arafai uses the second person, which readers don’t encounter very often, adding to the uniqueness of his narrative. Overall his work is original, tightly-plotted, beautifully-written with a surprising ending.

It is a no mean feat for Arab authors to produce such works under the present circumstances. Some tackled political issues, such as how corruption permeates and destroys the societal fabric of a country with grace and lightness of touch. For example, in his collection “نكات للمسلحين” Jokes for Gunmen” Palestinian writer Mazen Maarouf, who unanimously won al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, writes from a child’s point of view most of the time about oppression, lack of control over surroundings and other issues. This collection, in which each story is mature and complete, reminds us of the writings of the late Emil Habibi, but Maarouf takes Habibi’s writing to another level and a touch of surrealism is added to the combination of tragedy and comedy. The unusual and bizarre is mixed with the mundane to produce texts that are deceptively simple, but raise existential questions. The brutality of the occupier is always present in the background and presented indirectly or metaphorically without any mention of the political realities against which Maarouf’s texts are set or were produced.

Very few writers succeed in transposing us to their unique world, where reality is not only presented, but also reshaped. Some create rich multi-layered texts with a unique vision, which might help readers understand the complex realities of the region. In an Arab world riddled with wars, civil and uncivil, and conflicts, to pick up the pen and write is a triumph in itself. Furthermore, to produce unique and original texts that would stand any scrutiny whether local or international is a victory for Arabic literature and culture.

Published in Banipal 58, Spring 2017

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