Shukri Al-Mabkhout: We must be sporting in the literary prize race

Shukri Al-Mabkhout: We must be sporting in the literary prize race

The Tunisian writer does not see a contradiction between his academic discipline and his novelistic adventure

Shukri al-Mabkhout is one of the most prominent names in the Tunisian cultural scene, whether in the field of academic research, literary criticism, narrative creativity, or intellectual issues. He drew strong attention after winning the Arab Booker Prize years ago. He “discovered” Taha Hussein thirty years ago in his book “Sirat Al-Aghaib – Biography of the Next”, then his novels continued, including “Al-Talyani”, “Mirror of the Loser” and “Baganda”. In this dialogue, Al-Mabkhout reveals the scenes of his presidency of the Booker Prize jury in its last session, and admits that his relationship with the short story is as close to a whim as possible, and he hopes to resume some of his previous experiences in establishing cultural magazines that stumbled because they were based on voluntary efforts.

Here is the text of the conversation:

> She published several works after the novel “Al-Talyani”, but it did not enjoy the luster that that novel had. What is the reason?

The reason is relatively clear. The novel received a lot of attention because of its “Poker”. One of the advantages of this award is that there is an important media and cultural movement around the novels in its long and short lists. But the sparkle you speak of accompanied the novel even before it received the award; As far as I remember, it reached its fourth edition before getting poker. There is always a reason for spreading. If this spread after the award is linked to the curiosity to know the novel and evaluate it negatively or positively on the basis of its worthiness of the award, receiving it before the award and critical and even impressionistic attitudes from it indicate that there is something in the novel that drew some readers to it. According to my follow-up to what was written of contradictory opinions, I think that what attracted the readers was what they found in her of the attraction of the personality of “Abdul Nasser al-Taliani” and his companion “Zeina”, in addition to the fact that her world was diverse; It is built on more than one narrative axis.

> Has the success achieved by this work in terms of awards and translation become a burden on your following works, in other words: Do you suffer from the Italian “curse”?

– No, what I have previously mentioned does not mean, on the other hand, that what was written about other narrations witnessed less celebration of it than “Al-Taliani”, but some thought that the second part of it, entitled “Mirror of the Loser” is better than the first part. Among the readers, those who considered Baganda more mature than Al-Talyani, and others found in the “fragrant biography of the leader” in its ironic style something different. From this point of view, “Al-Talyani” has not become a burden for those who watch the novels, except for those who follow the awards. In any case, there are various different positions, and all readers are free to evaluate, accept and reject. There is no consensus in literature.

Shukri Al Mabkhout

> Your entry into the field of narrative fiction was noisy by winning the “Arab Booker Prize” through your first work. Would you have preferred your entry to be quiet and simple?

Every book has a path and destiny. Al-Taliani was no exception to this rule. But it was not certain that such a thing, which you described as a quiet and simple entry, would have allowed the crowning of another of my novels with “The Booker” or something else. There is some chance in the matter, and I mean by chance that Al-Taliani succeeded within the limits of what the jury had of novels. Its value is not absolute, but rather a value in relation to the total number of nominations that were in the hands of the members of the committee. Personally, I have no illusions in this regard, because I have experienced arbitration and know something about the confusion of the award committees and their creation of the criteria for coronation through the texts that they have.

> You have only one collection of short stories, which is “The President.” Is your relationship with the art of the short story a passing “whim”?

You may take it as a whim, since I wrote the novel before the short story. But personally, despite everything the critics say, I do not see a difference between the story and the novel except in terms of the extent provided by the imaginary worlds that the narrator builds. I have all of them from the narrative art when writing, but the management of the narrative world differs from one type to another only. As for criticism, it can decide what it wants. In fact, I have other unpublished stories that I get lazy every time I collect them, or I see that some of them need further development. In the midst of the distraction of my literary interests, I prefer to focus on the novel because it is more capable of expressing the issues that I want to address.

> Mentioning scientific research, did your academic background and its discipline and methodology contrast with the stubbornness of the creative inside you?

– Make sure that there is no contradiction in writing, in its academic and creative categories, between rigor and wildness. The novel, which is considered to be wild, requires a lot of methodology, discipline and construction, so every mistake in it may be fatal, and its pleasure lies in this tension between what I called “intolerance” and what I consider to be structure and organization. And I can honestly say that the two phenomena are present in academic writing as well. It is no more rigorous than a novel, nor less wild than creativity. I may be wrong in my description but that’s how I feel.

> It combines criticism and creativity, so does this duality give you a privilege that is not available to those who are critics only or only creators?

– I do not know whether theoretical critical knowledge is an advantage in creativity, or is it a hindrance to the creative impulse, or what you called stubbornness. What is consistent with me is that the novel is written through the accumulated experiences, expertise and various knowledge of people, psyches and society, as well as knowledge of language and methods, and awareness of narrative structures, techniques and types of structures in building texts. Therefore, let us consider critical knowledge as part of what the novelist proceeds from, consciously or unconsciously, and what he needs within his vast knowledge to enter the world of narrative writing.

But let us pay attention to two things. The first is that your knowledge of grammar in the language does not mean that you will never get out of context, and the other is that novelists have critical knowledge implicitly through their accumulated reading experiences.

> You chaired the “Arab Booker” jury in its last session. How do you see the controversy that accompanies that award in general with each session?

– In all cases, it is a controversy that is mostly praiseworthy, and it confirms the growing interest in fictional art thanks to the dynamism created by the “Booker” prize in particular in the Arab cultural and media scene. But what is unfortunate is that discussions often go into a purely subjective doctrine that is based on the Qatari affiliation of this or that participant, for example, or on the taste of this interlocutor protesting the outcome, while the award is given regardless of any consideration other than the quality of the text on the one hand, and what tastes agreed upon. Members of the jury and their discussions on the other hand. Of course, the opinion of the committee is not sacred and is subject to criticism, but thinking about the logic of the conspiracy spoils all the rules of the game, including respecting the opinion of the jury, as it respects the opinion of the referee in sports matches, no matter how much right or wrong he has, let alone a five-member committee that may not be right, but it You may agree on a work that does not satisfy this reader or that and this candidate or that by comparison.

> Literary prizes give their winners a feeling of happiness, and on the other hand, those who are not fortunate feel bitterness and lack of verification, after the prizes became a criterion of value… What do you think?

Many valuable works that do not receive awards. So; I do not always see the award as an absolute criterion of value. We must be careful in this matter, and have sufficient integrity and necessary objectivity. Take, for example, the results of this year’s “Poker”, since I know the details of them since the stage before the long list was announced. I believe you to say that the valuable works were about 30 novels. After selection and purification, I made the short list of six novels that are very valuable to me. In fact, they won the prize for me, since the prize’s rules give it a financial reward for its excellence. As for the culminating novel, it is what seemed to the committee to be more valuable, despite the difficulty of being preferred at times. On the other hand, I understand your talk about the feeling of bitterness among some of the participants, but the issue for me is simple. The rules of the game assume a kind of sportsmanship as in all competitions, and whoever does not have this willingness or sees himself as greater than this or that award, and not winning will leave him bitterness in the throat not to filters.

> One of your early critical writings, “Sirat al-Aghasib – Biography of the Next,” which deals with the autobiography of Taha Hussein in “Al-Ayyam,” do you see what stopped you in that biography?

– It is a biography that stopped everyone who wrote about the biography; Because it is a landmark of modern fiction literature. It is a text born loaded with aesthetic questions that still exist in addition to its leadership. What I did was try to analyze the text of this work to show its technical tricks and to search its secrets from within the text, not from what surrounded it. I think that the analysis you presented was influenced mainly by different interpretative models that converge in its dependence mainly on the text and not on the footnotes, it needs to be developed and other efforts highlight other secrets in the book “Al-Ayyam”. Some of his results so far are in the technical aspects in which Taha Hussein made his remarkable biography.

> Finally, you established and managed several monthly and quarterly cultural magazines… How about this aspect of your experience?

– Indeed, these endeavors were part of the work to highlight the distinguished writings of Tunisians intellectually and methodically and out of faith in the role of culture in sculpting new landmarks. The climate of freedoms provided the opportunity for such works, which we wanted to be avant-garde. However, the material difficulties of publishing and distribution and the weakness of what is on hand prevented the continuation of the various experiments that were based on volunteering without financial support. Therefore, it stopped, and some of them may soon return to what we perceive as the need for collective thinking and the burning issues are raised calmly and respectfully, away from the miserable slogans raised by our politicians.

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