Wednesday 13 September 2017


Nine renowned writers – including Edwidge Danticat, Amitav Ghosh, Mohsin Hamid and Jamaica Kincaid – are the finalists for the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, announced by the magazine World Literature Today.

Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, a finalist.
The nominees represent the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, France, the United States and other areas and are recognized for their global contributions to literature.

The prize, a $50,000 biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and its international literature and culture magazine, may boost efforts to achieve more diversity in publishing, at a time when there are concerns the industry excludes some voices.

“We are ecstatic to have such a diverse and powerful group of writers representing the Neustadt Prize this year,” said Roberto Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today.

“This truly international slate of finalists – with diverse voices from the United States and as far away as Pakistan and Russia – reminds us that important literature knows no borders,” he added.

According to the magazine, the Neustadt Prize charter stipulates that the award “be given in recognition of outstanding achievement in poetry, fiction, or drama and that it be conferred solely on the basis of literary merit”.

A recent cover of World Literature Today.
Any living author writing in any language is eligible, “provided only that at least a representative portion of his or her work is available in English, the language used during the jury deliberations”, the sponsors say.

The prestigious prize (sometimes referred to as “the American Nobel”) may serve to crown a writer’s lifetime achievement or to direct attention to an important body of work that is still developing.

The award is not open to application; authors are nominated by a jury of “outstanding writers”. The jury will announce the 2018 winner on Nov. 9 during the 2017 Neustadt Festival of International Literature & Culture, hosted by World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma.

The festival will also honour American writer Marilyn Nelson, who will receive a separate 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and it will feature jury members reading their own work. The university will hold a ceremony next year for the winner of the 2018 Neustadt Prize

In an email interview, Davis-Undiano answered questions about the prize and its significance to international literature and publishing.

Q: The nine finalists selected for the 2018 Neustadt Prize reflect the rich diversity of world-class literature. Is this one of the aims of the prize – to highlight such diversity – and, if so, why?
Davis- Undiano: Yes, the Neustadt Prize planners have always wanted to promote world literature and global understanding of diverse cultures around the world. The founders of the prize long ago realized that most places in the world are provincial – whether it is the south of France or the south of Oklahoma – and need access to a broader view of what other cultures and literatures are like. When those goals are even partially reached, the world becomes a better and richer place.

Robert Con Davis-Undiano,
executive director of World Literature Today.
Q: With the general lack of diversity in publishing being a concern in countries such as the United Kingdom, can the Neustadt Prize have an impact on publishers’ choices? If so, in what way?
D-U: Yes, it can. The Neustadt Prize is one of the gatekeepers of world lit. Recognition received from this prize routinely affects other prizes, even the Nobel. The Nobel committee has even gone on record explaining that the Neustadt Prize influences the choices that they make.

Q: Related to this, how significant is a magazine such as World Literature Today in helping to achieve change?
D-U: WLT, too, is one of the gatekeepers of world literature. The magazine often recognizes and discusses trends before anyone else can comment on them. In this way, WLT is frequently in the role of introducing great literature, often from under-appreciated regions, to the rest of the world.

Q: What are some of the most important considerations for Neustadt jurors in making their choice?
D-U: The jurors are bound by the Neustadt charter to isolate literary impact and quality as much as possible from other factors. In practice, they often choose young writers on their way up in terms of importance and recognition. The jurors can serve only once.

Q: What are the requirements to be a Neustadt juror?
D-U: The Neustadt jurors are generally writers of the same calibre as the nominees. It is just understood that a writers helping to choose the next Neustadt laureate should be someone at the same level in terms of achievements and brilliance.

One of Danticat's notable books.
Q: The award is described as “one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights are equally eligible”. Do you think there should be more multi-genre awards like this, and, if so, why?
D-U: We like the Neustadt Prize having this unique status. The sponsors of an award often have their own interests to serve in terms of what is being judged to give the prize.  The Neustadt Prize, like the Nobel, is simply trying to identify writers who are having an impact and will likely have more.

Q: Two Caribbean-born writers (Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid) are among the finalists. Following a number of international awards for writers from the region, how do you see “Caribbean literature” on the global literary scene?

D-U: I think that the world is gradually opening to the culture and literature of the Americas, from the Caribbean to the southern cone. There is still a tendency toward “amnesia” about the history and the cultures of the Americas, and I want to see as much cultural recovery happening to highlight the Caribbean and the full expanse of the Americas.

(The nine finalists are: Emmanuel Carrère (France), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/US), Amitav Ghosh (India), Aracelis Girmay (US), Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/US), Yusef Komunyakaa (US), Patricia Smith (US), and Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia).

Monday 4 September 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Cairo Confidential (also titled The Nile Hilton Incident) is an Arabic-language, Egypt-set movie, but made with Northern European funding. This may provide an explanation for the production values Swedish director Tarik Saleh was able to give his work. Even at its most grotty, this film noir has the elegance and assurance of a top-budget movie.

A poster of the film in France.
The film also melds crime and punishment with politics, and so we might wonder how close to the bone the director permitted himself to go. Probably further than when you don’t have adequate funding, as Saleh journeys to the heart of rottenness: in relationships and political affairs. The crime story is set in the last violent, corruption-filled days of the Hosni Mubarak era, although much of the film was shot on location in Morocco, not Egypt.

Officer Noredin Mostafa (wonderfully played by Fares Fares) is a mid-level plainclothes cop. In classic noir tradition, he’s a widower living a spare lifestyle which does not exclude alcohol, cigarettes and the occasional joint of kif.

He’s assigned to look into a murder, the kind of sordid crime he should be used to. Perhaps because he lost his wife, he gives the case of a murdered woman more than his usual attention. It takes him through a complicated investigation with many lethal twists - and the viewer on a dizzying tour of the underside of Cairo. The director’s dark vision and the quality with which it’s expressed recall the novelist James Elroy (and film adaptations of his work) at his best.

The director, of Egyptian descent but born in Stockholm, has a feel for contemporary Egypt and its people. Saleh also has a background in the visual arts, including animation. Paradoxically, this sensibility enables him to make details resonate not just as aesthetic motifs but as reality that is both social and emotional. Whether his outsider status, and that of the production in general, distorts that reality is a question that’s difficult to answer, but should be considered.

Sudanese model Mari Malek plays a hotel worker
in Cairo Confidential.
Cairo Confidential (winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) is a film noir in the most literal sense, almost exclusively shot in dark hues via street lighting, indoor lights, or natural twilight. The effect is as handsome as it is forbidding - you want to join the habitués in a café and puff on a nargileh.

The vision of Egyptian society is one of poverty but also the teeming energy of a people kept from emerging from that poverty by a darkness that is more than physical - and by the bonds that stifle. The bonds are political, but also social, even familial. Just as the darkness has its romantic side, so the stress on family gives the story a strangely intimate flavour.

As long as the case stays within the seedy depths of Cairo - petty criminals, fences, shady barmen, entertainers moonlighting as prostitutes - Noredin can rely on his “family” of fellow policemen. In a milieu where official salaries are low, and rules need to be bent, complicity is taken for granted.

But then one of the nightclub entertainers turns out to have a higher profile than expected, and a person of interest turns out to be a rich industrialist. Noredin needs the protection of his superior, a high-level inspector who happens to be his uncle Kammal (Yasser Ali Maher). The uncle assures him that he has his back, and so Noredin digs deeper.

A scene from the film.
The story will take us to the upper levels of Egyptian society, but also to the hidden world of African migrants, including hotel worker Salwa, played by Mari Malek, a former refugee from Sudan who is now a top model, DJ and actress in the United States. It also takes us into Noredin’s darkly romantic heart, when he gets involved with the nightclub singer, Gina (Hania Amar). All the actors in Cairo Confidential are convincing, their authenticity etched in the acid bath of corruption. But Fares Fares stands out for his rendition of one supremely complex cop - dogged, melancholic, tough, smart, fair but also corrupt.

The deeper the obsessed Noredin gets into his case, the closer it gets to the Power. Ironically, the time-line creeps closer and closer to the Tahrir Square Revolution, the Power’s end. Noredin himself, whatever his intentions, can hardly claim to be divorced from the Power’s perfidy and its consequences: it’s all in the family. But, as we in the audience know, it’s not really the end of the Power. Although our hero gets battered as much as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow, and threatened with much worse, he will probably live to see another bribe. Who says there are no more Happy Endings?

Production: Atmo Production/Chimney/Copenhagen Film Fund. Distribution: Memento Films (France), Strand Releasing (USA)

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.