Who is Adania Shibli? Award-winning author of 'Minor Detail' longlisted for the International Booker Prize

The writer's third Arabic novel was translated to English by Elisabeth Jaquette

RWY0PW Manchester, UK. 7th Mar, 2019. Adania Shibli and Sjon talking about Studio Creole at the launch event for the Manchester International Festival, Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester, UK, 7th March 2019 (C)Barbara Cook/Alamy Live News Credit: Barbara Cook/Alamy Live News
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Award-winning novelist Adania Shibli was among those longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021 on Tuesday for her latest book, Tafsil Thanawi (Minor Detail in English), which was released in 2020 and translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Who is Adania Shibli?

Born in Palestine in 1974, Shibli has had her work published across the Arab world and Europe since the late-1990s. She's written novels, plays, short stories and narrative essays, which have been seen in anthologies, art books, and literary and cultural magazines, and her work has been translated into a number of languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Hebrew and Korean, all of which she knows herself.

My quest in the case of Palestine is not to be concerned with anyone who cares about positioning, but those who are suffering

She's won the A M Qattan Foundation's Young Writer of the Year Award twice: once in 2001 for her novel Masaas, which was translated into English by Paula Haydar as Touch, a novella that centres on a girl who's the youngest of nine sisters in a Palestinian family; and again in 2003 for Kulluna Ba'id bethat al Miqdar aan el-Hub, translated by Paul Starkey as We Are All Equally Far from Love, about teenage post office worker Afaf, who discovers a mysterious set of love letters.

While she has written three Arabic novels, Shibli has also worked on plenty of non-fiction, including art book Dispositions and an edited collection of essays called A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialogue with Edward Said.

Shibli, who lives between Jerusalem and Berlin, has a PhD from the University of East London and has dedicated much of her time to academic research, too. She has been a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University, Palestine.

What is 'Minor Detail' about?

Shibli's latest novel is set across two time periods and revolves around a brutal crime committed during the summer of 1949 in Palestine, when Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, including a teenage girl, who is raped, killed and buried in the sands.

Many years later, another young woman in Ramallah sets out to discover the events surrounding this heinous act, dubbed a "minor" crime in present-day, which happened 25 years to the day before she was born.

"The result is a haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, cutting to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment," reads the book's description on the International Booker Prize website.

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Courtesy New Directions
'Minor Detail' by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Courtesy New Directions

It's been widely praised in literary circles across the world since its release.

Among its fans is South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee, who said: "Adania Shibli takes a gamble in entrusting our access to the key event in her novel – the rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman – to two profoundly self-absorbed narrators – an Israeli psychopath and a Palestinian amateur sleuth high on the autism scale – but her method of indirection justifies itself fully as the book reaches its heart-stopping conclusion."

In a review for The Guardian, a critic writes: "The terror Shibli evokes intensifies slowly, smouldering, until it is shining off the page … The book is, at every turn, dangerously and devastatingly good."

'My literature is never about Palestine'

While Shibli is well-versed in a number of languages, she only writes fiction in Arabic, "because this language is a witch – an amazing, funny, crazy, generous, and forgiving witch", she said in an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2020.

"It has allowed me everything," she said. "It is the space of the most intimate freedom I have ever experienced in my life."

Much of her writing focuses on Palestine, although she says her concern with her home country is personal, rather than literary.

"It forms my literature; but my literature is never about Palestine," she told the publication. "It is rather within and from Palestine as a condition of injustice; of the normalisation of pain and degradation. It reveals the limits of language."

She added: "My quest in the case of Palestine is not to be concerned with anyone who cares about positioning, but those who are suffering. We only have each other in such cases, as the privileged will never risk their privilege towards others if they can manage it."