Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner announced
For the first time in its 24-year history, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been won by an Arab writer - Hassan Blasim, for his second short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. This is also the first time a short story collection has been victorious.
Blasim and Wright share the £10,000 Prize, which they received at Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014 ceremony supported by Champagne Taittinger at the Royal Institute of British Architects this evening, Thursday 22 May.
The Iraqi Christ combines reportage, memoir and dark fantasy to present Iraq, post-Saddam and post-invasion, as a surrealist inferno. From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim's stories blend the fantastic with the everyday. The Iraqi Christ offers an unforgettable and often harrowing insight into life in contemporary Iraq.
Blasim, described as 'perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive' (Guardian), also won an English PEN translation award for The Iraqi Christ. He has much from his own life experience to draw from. He originally made films in his native Iraq, having to adopt a pseudonym and leave Baghdad for Kurdistan in northern Iraq to avoid persecution. In 2000 he fled Iraq completely, travelling as an illegal migrant for four years through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia before finally settling in Finland with the help of a friend.
Jonathan Wright, translator of The Iraqi Christ, studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.
Blasim and Wright will be appearing in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, judge and Senior Writer & Columnist, The Independent at an event at the Hay Festival at 9.00am on Saturday 24 May.
This year the judges also wanted to give a special mention to The Mussel Feast, the debut novel by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by fellow independent Peirene Press. This modern German classic first appeared in 1990 but is now published in English for the first time. Set around a family dinner The Mussel Feast lifts the lid on the trauma and pain that World War II left on ordinary German families and is described by judge Nadifa Mohamed as, 'a tiny book that leaves a strong impression'.
Judge Boyd Tonkin said of the winner:
A decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country's writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence. Among them, Hassan Blasim stands out for his fearless candour and rule-busting artistry. The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth, depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life. Jonathan Wright's translation from the Arabic captures all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy. The Iraqi Christ is not only the first Arabic book to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but a classic work of post-war witness, mourning and revolt.
Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature, Arts Council England, added:
'The Iraqi Christ is an intriguing collection, with unforgettable images, unexpected narrative perspectives and links between stories which urge you to revisit the previous tale even as you read on. The boldness and energy of Hassan Blasim's prose is expertly conveyed by Jonathan Wright's translation. Many congratulations to both the author and the translator and to Comma Press, regularly funded by Arts Council England, for publishing the collection. It is exciting to see the range of languages widening with each successive winner of the prize, with an Arabic title winning for the first time. Translation is hugely important to our literary culture - as is short fiction - and Arts Council England is delighted to support the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which brings to UK readers the finest fiction from around the world.'
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