IPAF 2015 winner Shukri Mabkhout on his novel, the Tunisian Revolution and writing as a form of catharsis

'The novel was written during November 2012 when the Islamists wanted to change the pattern of our society in a very frightening manner.'

Shukri Mabkhout, right, won the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his debut novel The Italian. The award was presented by Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan on May 6 in Abu Dhabi. DELORES JOHNSON / The National
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One of the benefits of writing your debut novel at the age of 53 is that you can draw upon old memories.

For Shukri Mabkhout, the upheaval in his homeland during the Arab Spring in 2012 was the catalyst. Set in 1987, The Italian follows the life of the youthful Abdel Nasser – nicknamed "the Italian" because of his good looks – as he attempts to navigate Tunisian's society's increasingly fractured landscape during the troubled 1987 political transition from the country's first head of state, Habib Bourguiba, to the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

While that period and the subsequent ousting of Ben Ali in 2011 were inherently different, Mabkhout says both experiences triggered a familiar feeling of desperation.

“It is this feeling of fear of what the future holds,” says the Tunisian author. “The anxiety helped me in a way, because it spurred me to write the novel. I had the story in my head for a while but that experience made me work on it in an almost feverish way. I look at is a form of catharsis.”

You’ve just won the award – has it sunk in yet?

I can honestly tell you that this whole thing was not expected at all. When the book made the shortlist I was absolutely thrilled and that was enough of me. It felt like a great coronation for the work to be highlighted in such a way. That was a very satisfying experience. But to win the award was simply amazing – I really can’t describe it in any other way.

How important a role did the recent Tunisian revolution play in inspiring your debut novel?

I never really chose the subject; instead, it has imposed itself on me. I used to write stories when I was younger but they weren’t worthy of publication. The novel was written during November 2012 when the Islamists wanted to change the pattern of our society in a very frightening manner. I had these fears and asked myself, ‘What do they want to do with the country?’ The novel was a way to make sense of what was going on, and I remember the words almost being forced out of me and on to the page.

What is it about chaotic environments that gives birth to great literature or poetry?

With all due respects to the poets, I don’t think that what we lived through in Tunisia during that time was poetry. Thinking about it now, it felt more like strange theatre than poetry.

What was the reaction in Tunisia? Did the novel strike a nerve?

That’s what is really exciting to me; the reaction it is receiving back home, particularly from young readers who are 19 or 20 years old. I am hearing that my book is the first Arabic-language story read by many of these Tunisians who are primarily French speakers and after reading it they are looking for more stories in Arabic. Sometimes you think that most discussions around books are done by critics, but I am learning that my story has affected a lot of people and has been the subject of dialogue between them. I think that’s the value of literature, to create a space for people to discuss and share thoughts.

You are renowned for your academic work and dissertations on Arabic literature. Was writing your first novel difficult as you couldn’t rely on the crutch of raw data?

I wouldn’t say I experienced fear because I also wrote poetry and columns for newspapers. Regarding my academic writing, although they are different mediums, the qualities needed are the same. Writing requires the discipline of remaining in your seat and keep working as well as the patience and attention to details. Another thing that’s important to mention is that writing fiction is not just about imagination. Half of it is imagination, the other half is how to manage and present that imagination.

A lot will be expected from your follow-up novel. Have you begun working on it?

I have many plans. I am working on two other novels, and a collection of poetry and short stories. The challenge is to find more time to work on them.

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