Fresh from winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) for her novel The Night Mail, Lebanese author Hoda Barakat, 67, admits that she is not a fan of awards. While she appreciates the plaudits of being the first woman to solely win the prize, a distinction she is ambivalent about, she says that literary awards generally trigger a mini existential crisis within her.
"Well, it does make you hope, doesn't it?" she says with a wry chuckle a few hours after the ceremony in Abu Dhabi last week. "And then if you don't do well, you can't help but feel disappointment."
Barakat, who lives in Paris, certainly felt that way when her 2013 novel The Kingdom of this Earth failed to make it further than the Ipaf longlist. She admits to feeling bitter and dejected about it. "I still think that is my best work and to not see it make the shortlist, well, I don't know, it didn't feel good. I remember I was in London and I met someone from the awards who was actually here today in Abu Dhabi. He asked me what I felt about it and I told him exactly how I felt. After that, I vowed not to enter competitions any more, I am too old for exams."
A new kind of story
It was her agent, Rania, who convinced Barakat to enter The Night Mail in the 12th annual Ipaf awards. The fact that it won can only serve as a testament to her good literary judgment, and that's because The Night Mail is one of the award's most intriguing entries.
It is a story about stories. It features a cast of characters, from a baker to a postman, living on the margins of society – some are exiles and some migrants, while others are homeless. They write letters that share the ache of being dislocated, though they know most of their messages will not reach their intended recipients. Yet they share their lives in these notes and eventually their fates intertwine.
Written sparsely, at just under 300 pages, The Night Mail is acclaimed for moving away from the dense fiction that has come to characterise the modern Arabic novel. Charafdin Majdolin, a Moroccan literary critic and head of the judging panel, praised the book's "condensed economy of language, narrative structure and capacity to convey the inner workings of human beings".
Barakat explains, however, that brevity wasn't a major goal for the work. "I wasn't thinking of that at all," she says. "The fact that it came this way meant I said everything I had to say in that time. More than the plot, this is really a book about emotions, isolation and humanity."
More than confessions and revelations, the letters in The Night Mail provide some of the characters with a moment to reflect after travelling to safer shores. Barakat says she wrote the novel in response to the migrant crisis that is sweeping the world.
"There are people out there who fled their countries and homes with no place to go. They are scattered over the Earth and they board boats of death and the world doesn't want to look at them," she says. "I don't offer judgments to my characters. I view them as innocent in their own way and all I want to do with these letters is give them a chance to be heard."
Writing from the heart
A similar impetus drove the author to begin writing in her teenage years. Barakat was born in the Maronite Christian town of Bsharri in Lebanon's north and moved to Beirut where she completed a degree in French Literature in 1975 at the Lebanese University.
During the Lebanese Civil War, she worked as a translator, teacher and journalist. Barakat says she was driven to write to nail down what she felt. "It comes from a breakdown of communication that was happening at the time, and still today. People are just not listening to each other any more," she says. "So I wrote to really say what is in my heart and I found out that was my honest way."
But when it comes to her 1990 debut novel, Hajar Al Dahik (The Stone of Laughter), written at what she deems the "late age" of 38, she puts that down to reading. "When you read so much you begin to know the excellence you are up against," she says. "I realised I had to improve myself if I wanted to put myself and my work out there."
It has been a case of better late than never, with all of her six novels earning consistent praise – 2000's The Tiller of Waters even won the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, awarded to the best contemporary novel written in Arabic and not available in English translation.
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With all of her works now available in translation in various languages – The Stone of Laughter, The Tiller of Waters and Disciples of Passion have all been translated into English – it's her Arabic-reading fans whom she writes for first and foremost. "No one enters competitions like this thinking about how their work will get translated," she says. "The fact that I am Arab, and that I won this great award because I wrote in my mother tongue, is the most satisfying thing to me."
More than the raised profile, Barakat hopes her Ipaf award will encourage Arabic readers to seek out more novels in the language to savour. And she hopes her future works will feed that demand. "I totally believe that even more great novels will come," she says. "A lot of people complain that there are too many novelists out there and anything is being published. I say 'why not?' Let them write and publish because in the end, only the good works will remain."
The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until April 30 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. For more information, visit www.adbookfair.com