Novel or novella? Winner of the Arab Booker interviewed at Abu Dhabi book fair
At only 129 pages, Hoda Barakat’s latest novel, The Night Mail, which was announced as the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) on Tuesday 23 April, could be called by some a novella – but not by the author. In conversation at the 29th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair yesterday with Yassim Adnan, one of the Trustees of the IPAF, Hoda Barakat said she preferred to describe it as "a short novel, not a novella."
While previous works have mainly concentrated on the psychological effects of the civil war in Lebanon, where the author comes from, this latest work uses letters to explore displacement and the refugee experience. Barakat had, she said, written many versions of the novel, trying each time to enrich and condense it. "This story was born to be an intense short novel," she said, going on to add that a lot of the stories in it came to her as voices in her head: "perhaps a writer has an antenna that catches something."
Despite its superficial likeness to the epistolary form perhaps more common in Western literature, Barakat had not been thinking about foreign language rights as she wrote it. Fortuitously, however, one of the main aims of the IPAF is to encourage the translation of Arabic literatures into other languages and The Night Mail will be published in the UK in 2020 by Oneworld.
Not all of her previous works are available in English. Her first novel, The Stone of Laughter, was the first Arabic work to have a homosexual man as its main character. The book won the Al-Naqid prize and is published in English by Interlink Books in New York. Her third novel, The Tiller of Waters, won the 2001 Naquib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and was published by the American University in Cairo Press while her fourth, Disciples of Passion, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2005.
Speaking briefly to BookBrunch after the event, Barakat revealed that at the moment she is so busy she has not yet had time to think about her next novel, though she is hopeful she will be able to set to work sometime this autumn – and that she has "a small idea maybe" for the topic.
Pictured: Hoda Barakat, winner of the 2019 IPAF, in conversation with Yassin Adnan at the 2019 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair