One member of the team behind the six-year-old MEMO Palestine Book Awards in London is Victoria Brittain, a journalist and author herself. She is now one of the trustees who choose the judges each year, having been one of them herself for the first three years of the initiative.
Victoria Brittain is familiar with many countries in Africa and some in the Middle East, where she lived for many years. She is a lover of words, books and Palestine, so she is eminently suitable for her role with the Awards team.
The judges chosen are always independent and decide between themselves who will win what is fast becoming a prestigious honour. The winners in 2016 included Ramzy Baroud, Anaheed Al-Hardan and Lorenzo Kamel. As with previous years’ winning books, theirs were distinguished not only for their literary quality, obviously, but also for their contribution to a deeper understanding of Palestinian society, in its historical, societal and psychological dimensions.
This year, Victoria tells me, there were more than 40 books on the longlist. “At the beginning of the awards initiative, of course, we didn’t know what books we were likely to get or how many; we certainly didn’t expect anything like this. Now, the books that we receive are ever broader in their range, and each year it is more exciting to see that range extended.”
The Awards team selects the books and authors, and also discovers new publishers who see an opportunity to have their new books supported, which must increase sales. “We have recognised nearly a dozen small publishers who have delivered great books,” explains Victoria, “and who have told us how much the Palestine Book Awards have encouraged them to do more.”
For the former associate foreign editor of the Guardian, what matters is not so much who wins the prize, but seeing the diversity of these books. “Many of them are brought out by small publishing companies, which had the courage to take a chance on the authors and their work. The Palestine Book Awards events create connections between all these people — authors and publishers — who have a common passion for Palestine, both today and in history.”
According to Victoria, the Awards are also an opportunity to showcase Palestine in a way far removed from the usual clichés and often narrow interests of the media. “I have been going to Palestine for a long time, and it seems to me that the way we outsiders in the West write about Palestine is often very limited. Among the Book Awards entries we see so many Palestinian authors who show a much more profound understanding of their world and who deserve to be better known.”
The judges for the Palestine Book Awards this year are: Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana; Palestinian journalist Ibrahim Darwish; writer Fayçal Mikdadi; former diplomat Alan Waddams; and literature critic Subhi Hadidi. All of them have one task; to choose the best books. Many judges want to be involved in the role for several years, a clear demonstration of their commitment. “We are building something in this modest way,” notes Victoria. “Little by little we want to contribute to showcasing Palestinian literature, bringing its richness to European and other audiences beyond Palestine.”
This year, the presence of so many successful female authors pleased the Awards trustee. She mentions Ibtisam Barakat and her book “Balcony on the moon, coming of age in Palestine”; and the powerful, intricate illustrations of Samia Halaby in her “Drawing the Qafr Qassem Massacre”. There are important academic works too: Ilan Pappé’s “The Biggest Prison on Earth, a History of The Occupied Territories”, for example, and Laila Parsons’ “The Commander”. Ella Shohat’s “On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and other Displacements” is in the line-up as well, as is “The Oslo Accords: A Critical Assessment”, edited by Petter Bauck and Mohammed Omer.
Victoria Brittain points out that if these books are anything to go by, there is some seriously impressive education in Palestine. “These writers are part of the profusion of Palestinian literature, of the cultural memory of this society. These books are examples that show this level of work and education. They show that Palestinian culture is alive and vibrant. That’s how things change.”
She comes back to the importance of the women writers, who are responsible for 5 of the 9 shortlisted books. “In Palestinian society, the importance of women is fundamental,” she insists. In part, this is because of the very many men (especially) who serve, or have served, extremely long prison terms, which take them away from their families. “Also, I find in many young Palestinian women an immense life force, a vitality, a determination to make one’s own life, whatever quite extraordinary difficulties they may face.”
This, concludes Victoria, highlights why opportunities such as those afforded by MEMO’s Palestine Book Awards are so very important. “Literature is a kind of resistance to the occupation; books really do matter for the future.”