With the aim of increasing the literary output of the Arab world, Sekka launched its first literary prize in October 2021. Submissions for nonfiction, fiction and poetry written in English by those from or residing in Arab countries were open for two months, during which hundreds of entries were received. The winners of the first and second place submissions in each category, which are listed below and published in the pages of the issue, were judged and chosen by Jonas Elbousty, PhD, Afra Atiq, PhD, Shahd Alshammari, PhD, and Amal Al Sahlawi.
- First place winner: Myriam Amri for ‘An Archipelago of Grief’
- Second place winner: Fatima Alharthi for ‘Pear’
- First place winner: Sharon Aruparayil for ‘Shoeboxes in the Sky’
- Second place winner: Zainab Mirza for ‘The Drive Home’
- First place winner: Shaikha Sabti for ‘A Relationship with My Dad’
- Second place winner: Mariam Elkholy for ‘Post-war Pubs’
Here, the judges share their reflections on the selection process, the winning submissions, the state of literature in the Arab world and their hopes for its future.
The Interview: Shahd Alshammari, PhD
Shahd Alshammari is a Kuwaiti-Palestinian author and academic. She is the author of Notes on the Flesh and Head above Water: Reflections on Illness. Alshammari teaches literature and has written a number of stories and creative nonfiction works. Her research focuses on illness narratives and disability studies.
‘The fiction submissions were very interesting to read, with a variety of themes and topics. We struggled to choose the winning entries because there was such great work. We saw a variety of subgenres including some dystopian, surreal and realism subgenres. What stood out was the significance placed on critiquing society – a lot of social issues were explored by the authors. The nonfiction submissions are always more vulnerable than fiction because there is an immediate pact between author and reader – the author is telling the truth. In Arab societies, it seems to me that nonfiction as a genre does not have popularity. This saddens me greatly, because the essay form, the memoir, the autobiographical genres are all very much needed, and many want to write nonfiction but fear society’s judgement. It is a very intimate genre. Having said that, we received a few powerful submissions dealing with death, the body and loss – all very human and universal experiences.
The submissions tell us there are so many powerful voices waiting to be discovered. I believe we need more publishing houses that are open to authors writing in English. I think it would change the reception of works in English. I can see that Sekka always supports talent and does not discriminate based on gender, race or the language chosen by the author. I wish more magazines and publishing houses had the same vision. We need publishing houses with editors, editorial committees that are serious about the type of work that gets published and promoted.
“Shoeboxes in the Sky,” the fictional short story that won first place, is beautiful in its candid approach to a topic that is underexplored. The language, plot and characterisation are all so well done. Craft and content were very important for us as judges. Both are met in the first place position. We also hope to see more work that deals with diversity, minorities and voices that need to be amplified. “Shoeboxes in the Sky” does that very well. “The Drive Home,” which won second place in the fiction category, is also powerful and surprising, filled with gaps, plot twists and a wonderful pacing. Dialogue especially stands out in this piece, and we were invested in the character’s well-being. I loved the careful construction of scenes and pacing of events. The internal monologue is also done really well.
With regards to the nonfiction submissions, the entry that won first place in the nonfiction category, “Archipelago of Grief,” is powerful in its treatment of grief, one of the lesser understood and often experienced human emotions. It is universal and relatable and does not shy away from expressing pain as it is. The entry that won second place, “Pear,” deals with society’s pressures and expectations of ideal femininity and addresses an issue that is not usually addressed: women’s relationships with their bodies. I appreciate the originality and the boldness.
In the future, I hope to see more literature produced that deals with psychological tensions and grapples with identity, the body, the expression of hybridity, and I certainly hope to see more nonfiction produced. I want to see more annual literary prizes, more competitions and more publications. I want support from governments and literary festivals. I believe there is quite some undiscovered talent in the region and it is our duty to support it, whether as creative artists, professors, writers, publishers or even as government entities or NGOs.’
The Interview: Amal Al Sahlawi
Amal Al Sahlawi is an Emirati poet from Sharjah who studied Arabic literature at the University of Sharjah. She is the author of I Had to Postpone You, a collection of Arabic poetry. Al Sahlawi has participated in and contributed poetry to a number of cultural events, such as at New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE University, Sharjah’s House of Poetry and the Emirates Writers Union. The themes she explores through her poetry include womanhood, philosophy, existentialism and the anxieties of modern life.
‘I was generally impressed by the number of submissions and the originality of the pieces. Most of the submissions show a raw talent that hasn’t been polished yet. I loved that a lot of them found a way to connect to their heritage through poetry, but I’m mostly impressed by those who addressed the modern human struggles. I believe literature is becoming a subject of interest to this generation, and the impact of this generation will be clear within years from now. I’m very hopeful and full of anticipation.
The poem that won first place, “A Relationship with My Dad,” represents a deep perspective; it’s quite metaphoric and symbolic, which serves the greater purpose of poetry. I loved the vulnerability and the ability to demonstrate this story from a new angle in the poem that won second place, “Postwar Pubs.” Overall, both poems represent a lot of possibilities and capabilities, and I’m interested to read more from the poets.
My ultimate dream is to see Arab writers rise to their highest potentials and to see our heritage and literature read and celebrated worldwide.’
The Interview: Jonas Elbousty, PhD
Jonas Elbousty holds an MPhil and PhD in English Studies from Columbia University. He has taught at Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Al Akhawayn, Columbia University and Yale University. He is a writer, literary translator and academic. He is the co-author of three books, and his work has appeared (and is forthcoming) in Michigan Quarterly Review, ArabLit, ArabLit Quarterly, Asheville Poetry Review, Banipal, Prospectus, Sekka, Journal of North African Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Middle Eastern Literatures and Comparative Literature, amongst others. His translation of Mohamed Choukri’s two short story collections, Flower Crazy and The Tent, is forthcoming from Yale University Press. Elbousty has received many awards, including the Ordre des Palmes Académiques, the A. Whitney Griswold Faculty Research Fund and the 2020 Poorvu Family Award for excellence in teaching at Yale University.
‘I was so elated to see that many young people in the Arab world are writing short stories. This is evidenced by the vast number of submissions we received in the category of fiction. To see youth in the Arab world crafting riveting and moving stories is both heart-warming and inspiring. We received a small number of submissions in the nonfiction category, and I wish we had received more. We didn’t have a chance to evaluate more pieces as we had wished, and I hope this category receives more submissions in subsequent years of the Sekka prize.
The vast number of submissions in the fiction category is an unequivocal indication of the youth’s interest in writing, in general, and in fiction writing, in particular. Some of the pieces submitted for the Sekka inaugural literary award are both fascinating and deeply moving. Furthermore, a few pieces showcase the participants’ understanding and familiarity with the art of short story writing: character development, climax, dialogue, imagery, etc.
Whenever one is tasked to judge fiction submissions, one is in front of a difficult task, especially when the submissions include excellent pieces. We received multiple submissions in the fiction category, and the decision was somewhat difficult. However, two pieces stood out from our first reading. “Shoeboxes in the Sky” and “The Drive Home” are two riveting pieces capturing the readers’ attention and imaginations; the two writers use vivid descriptions that appeal to the readers’ senses. In short, their usage of imagery is superb.
With regards to the nonfiction winning submissions, “Archipelago of Grief” stood out from my first reading, as it is beautifully written. This piece explores the nature of death and the long-lasting grief human beings endure when faced with the loss of loved ones. The cultural details that are unlikely familiar to English readers are very lucid in this piece.
I want to congratulate Sekka for this amazing initiative. Awards like these encourage young people in the region to write about and express their feelings, fears, aspirations, hopes and dilemmas in beautifully woven texts. My hope is to see more young people put their pen to paper and write about their quotidian lives, with their ebbs and flows.’
The Interview: Afra Atiq, PhD
Afra Atiq is an Emirati poet and scholar. She holds a PhD in Media and Creative Industries and a Masters in Diplomacy. Her research has been published in international peer-reviewed journals. Her research focuses on education, social media effects and the Arabic Literary Sphere. With a passion for languages, she writes and performs in a blend of English, Arabic and French. She has been featured on numerous international platforms in Kuwait, India, Germany and the UK. Locally, Atiq has showcased her work, most notably, at Expo 2020 Dubai, Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, Dubai Opera and The Louvre Abu Dhabi. Community and education are at the core of everything Afra does, and she dedicates much of her time to school visits. She is a founding member of Untitled Chapters, a community of Emirati women writers.
‘I was impressed by the volume of poetry submissions and the diverse range of voices and topics. I think that by submitting to this literary prize, the writers showed courage as well. The submissions say that there is an interest in writing and particularly poetry. This tells me that the appreciation for the craft is evident; however, there is definitely room for skill development. This is why literary prizes are important, because they raise the bar and give writers a reason to polish and elevate their work. I think community and critique will be key, moving forward, in order to facilitate the growth of the writers and writing community.
The winning poem, “A Relationship with My Dad,” gave me a glimpse into the writer’s world. I could hear her unique voice and really appreciated the storytelling. This poem stayed with me long after I had finished reading it, which means that the poem did its job. It moved, with vulnerability, across a place that the writer allowed the reader into, while existing in a hybrid prose/poem space. The use of multiple languages added to the intimacy of the poem, which was cleverly done through dialogue. Raw though it is, the poem began and ended with an image, which brought the experience full circle.
I hope that all the writers keep writing and reading. I hope writers in our region keep telling their stories and using their voices. Above all, I hope the value of their voices is always felt and understood, by the writers and the audience.’
This feature article is part of The Power of Words Issue. To read the issue in its entirety digitally click here to buy a digital copy of the issue.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.