Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. It won six international literary awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book award for Europe and South Asia, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and the inaugural Arab American Book Award. It has been translated into twenty-six languages. His fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the New York Times, El Pais, La Republica and several other international magazines and newspapers. His new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, will appear in the US in August. He lives in London. Matar is the Chair of this year’s Caine Prize Judging Panel and he spoke to Africa Book Club about the award.
Was writing something you always wanted to do? What motivated you to write? Were you trying to tell the story of Libya or is there more to it than that?
It wasn’t something inevitable or natural in that sense, and neither was I motivated to tell my story or document my country’s history. I didn’t seek to relate a vision of how life is or ought to be either. The honest truth is I am not entirely clear why I write. It is partly that mystery that keeps me writing.
As an award winning writer yourself, you have some sense of what awards can mean for a writer’s career. Can you speak to this?
Generally speaking, awards are inadequate for assessing good literature. They are very subjective, which is why they leave many people feeling dissatisfied. But they remain a very effective way of highlighting new talent.
What makes the Caine Prize, in particular, so different or special?
Over the years, the Caine Prize has managed to introduce a wide selection of readers to new writing from Africa. There are lots of prizes that celebrate known authors but very few prizes that bring new writers to the fore. And in this sense, the Caine Prize has been very effective.
Can you comment on this year’s prize – the range, number, and quality of entries? What impressed you?
I can only compare this year’s entries to my 2008 experience, which is the only other time I have been a Caine Prize judge. The previous time, the entries were generally not as good as what we’ve received this year. Yes, there were a few powerful stories that clearly stood out. But this time, while we still do have a number of powerful stories, the general standard is better overall.
The more interesting observation, perhaps, is that the previous time I took part as a judge, many of the powerful stories seemed preoccupied with a few specific themes – issues like rape, aids which were very topical at the time. This year, it’s different. The entries are more varied in terms of the issues they cover.
Also, in the past, there was a clear difference between stories submitted by black and white Africans. White Africans, and this is really a generalization, had more access to books and education, and as a result their writing tended to be more polished and informed by wide reading. This year, that quality distinction wasn’t there.
Surprisingly, there were no Nigerian authors on the shortlist, considering that the country has historically produced some of the continent’s best writers?
We had some good entries by Nigerian writers. Personally, I feel very strongly that every entry should be judged on the merit of the work. To use nationality or other criteria would be insulting to readers and authors. To be honest, I wasn’t keeping in mind which country an entry came from. I was only interested in the writing and I don’t think I was unique in this regard amongst the other judges on this year’s panel. We ended up with stories that we were excited about.
Are there African writers that you admire? What are some of your favorite books about Africa, or written by African writers?
There are many books and many writers. I have enjoyed and admired Tayeb Salih’s work. Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, is another whose work I like. Wole Soyinka is wonderful. And I deeply admire J. M. Coetzee’s luminous novels. As for books, Season of Migration to the North (by Tayeb Salih) and Waiting for the Barbarians (by J.M. Coetzee) are two of my favorites, but there are many others…
Tell us about your latest book, Anatomy of a Disappearance. Is this a sequel to your first? When is officially out?
My latest book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in March. It’s not a sequel to my first. Rather, it’s about a man who is seeking to find his father, not literally but existentially. It’s about the lives of those who remain and how they are affected by loss. It’s a book about absence.
As a writer, what advice would you give aspiring writers on the continent?
I don’t mean this flippantly but my best advice to aspiring writers is to write. The best lessons on writing are in the act. Reading is also important. It teaches one about writing and the world. Another important thing is to pay attention, to look, to listen. So, in three words, ‘Write, Read and Live’!
Any final words?
Yes, please tell all the young writers in Africa that we would like to see many more stories coming out of the continent. This year, the Caine Prize received about 130 entries. Next year, it would be great to receive 260 short stories.