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Walid Nabhan wins EU prize for literature

Walid Nabhan. Photo: Bettina von Brockdorrf

Walid Nabhan. Photo: Bettina von Brockdorrf

Small is beautiful, but tougher going than for the big guns. As a small country with great national aspirations, Malta constantly strug­gles and craves for success and recognition, as can be seen by the yearly debate on our Eurovision showing and the regular head scratching after the inevitable sporting debacle.

The artistic scene may be gentler, or positively fragmented enough to allow many Maltese prac­­titioners to etch their name in contemporary pantheons. Or else it’s pure talent that comes to the fore in environments that eschew competition and strive to promote artistic works irrespective of borders.

The European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) is an example of such an initiative, and this year’s Maltese winner is Walid Nabhan for his novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji (Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2014 National Book Prize winner).

The aim of the EUPL is to put the spotlight on the creativity and diverse wealth of Europe’s contemporary literature in the field of fiction, to promote the circulation of literature within Europe and to encourage greater interest in non-national literary works. Prizes are awarded in three-year cycles, meaning that Malta already won this prize in 2011 for Imman­uel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben) and in 2014 for Pierre Mejlak’s Dak li l-Lejl Iħallik Tgħid.

Everyone’s a winner?

The award’s name might seem a misnomer of sorts: every country wins! The award’s three-year cycles mean that countries do not actually compete against each other, but have their turn to reward one of their authors. Big and small are on an equal footing, and the award is not only reserved to EU member states but also welcomes countries of the European Economic Area and candidate countries for EU ac­cession. Liechtenstein and An­dor­ra, for instance, are awarded in the same way as Poland and Italy are.

The prize’s format thus re­nounces on competition and instead strives to showcase literary works and diversity from all over Europe, irrespective of size and fame, in order to encourage the translation of these works for further dissemination. National juries – in Malta’s case, l-Akkademja tal-Malti –  select the prize winner, according to the EUPL criteria that require the winning book to be the author’s latest publication and for the author to have published between two to four contemporary fiction books. One can say that, beyond rewarding an individual novel, the prize also highlights an author’s literary career and achievements.

The Maltese winner

Walid Nabhan has placed Malta on the map of literary multilingualism as an author writing successfully in his non-native tongue, such as Milan Kundera  and Vladimir Nabokov. Born in Jordan in 1966, his family fled Al-Qbeybeh, a small village in the outskirts of Hebron, Palestine, after the 1948 war that established the State of Israel and resulted in the first Palestinian Diaspora. He subsequently wended his way around Europe until arriving in Malta in 1990.

L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji, a novel about identity, exile and displacement, but also about love and family in difficult times, tells the story of a Palestinian man called Nabil who has lived all his life outside his homeland. This first person narrative recounts an existence irrevocably intertwined with the fate of Palestine and of the whole Arab world: in trying to understand himself,  Nabil  needs to find explanations for the way things have turned out in the Middle East, especially since the Six-Day War, an event that coincided with the birth of the narrator. The events in the novel take place mainly in Jordan, where Nabil was brought up and where his father continued to live until his death, and Malta, where the protagonist ended up later.

Beyond the prize

After the prize-winning ceremony in Brussels on Tuesday, the real work begins. Publishers and editors discover potential new titles, translators are commissioned, the novel starts appear­ing in book fairs all over Europe, and new readers discover an author they may have not know before. An array of in­dus­tries are set in motion, with the creation of economic opportunities.

The EUPL can, in fact, be considered a contributor to the EU priority of jobs, investment and growth as it highlights new publications that generate commercial interest and are disseminated in Eu­rope through professional translation.

Walid Nabhan’s prize-winning achievement will be celebrated on Friday at 7pm with a literary evening at Dar l-Ewropa, 254, St Paul Street, Valletta. The event will be followed by a reception. Entrance is free (upon presentation of an identity card). The event is being organised by the European Commission Representation in Malta and Inizjamed, with the colla­boration of l-Akkademja tal-Malti.

What the authors say

Pierre Meilak (Merlin Publishers): Translation is key for Maltese writers. European platforms and awards provide us with that exciting opportunity to share our work with a much wider audience, who knows little, if anything, about Malta and its literature.

Winning the EU Prize for Literature made it possible for my book to be translated into 10 languages – the latest being Turkish and Polish – and to be presented in book fairs, literary gatherings and cultural events around Europe. Yet, what I cherish most from this journey are the new friends I met along the way – writers and readers brought together by the passion they share – and the collaborative projects that followed.

Immanuel Mifsud (Klabb Kotba Maltin): The EUPL was instrumental in giving greater exposure to my work. Apart being translated in different countries, it also served  as a platform to be exposed to major publishers.

Although I believe the prize could do with certain improvements, including an element of competition, authors and translators are given an excellent opportunity to ply their trade in markets and readerships across borders.

The publishers’ perspective

Chris Gruppetta, Merlin Publishers: “I’m often sceptical about prizes, but I experienced firsthand how the EU prize opened doors for publication overseas in translation.

“I’ve noticed some publishers acquiring rights without having read the book, nor indeed an excerpt or synopsis; which is also resonant of the pres­tige that the prize carries.”

Joe Mizzi, Midsea Books: It is an honour for any publisher to have one of his authors awarded by such a prestigious organisation. For the winners it is an important opportunity to showcase their books on an international platform. This award is also testimony that Maltese literature is thriving with authors whose writing may be matched to any of their colleagues all over Europe.

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