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2018 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Ahmed Saadawi

By Eric M. B. Becker

Ahmed Saadawi and his translator Jonathan Wright are shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Frankenstein in Baghdad


Words Without Borders (WWB): Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?

Ahmed Saadawi (AS): In fact, as many writers may answer, I’ve been writing since I was child, but firstly as a form of amusement or a pastime. I used to write short stories and poems. When I was in primary school I presented a play I had written. Later, in adolescence, I began to write poetry more competently, following the rules for old Arab poetry. The transformation came when I found my way into literary circles and published a small volume of poems in 1995. After my first novel, Beautiful Country, won first prize for an Arabic novel in a 2005 competition in Dubai, there was more interest in and appreciation of my writing, and I started to focus more on novel writing. Writing, especially novel writing, became my identity. 

I think that writing always has a bunch of objectives, not all of them obvious to the author. One of the aims is pleasure, a sense of achievement, creating something new and winning the admiration of others. Another objective may be clearer now: a sense of responsibility toward matters of public interest and the possibility that art and literature can to some extent change the way readers think.


WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country’s/language’s literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?

AS: Some critics have classified my writings as resting on the aesthetic and cognitive basis of postmodernism and some of the performatist ideas of Raoul Eshelman. But personally I don’t often think about the theoretical context, and I can claim that I have strong ties to the Arab tradition of narrative in both its artistic and historical forms. In its artistic form it appears in Kalila and Dimna, A Thousand and One Nights, and folk stories that were transmitted orally. As for the historical form, I treat classical historical writings in Arabic as narrative texts. Although they claim to address real events, they are full of miraculous events and mythical and metaphysical stories.

I have learned much from Italo Calvino—how, in each new work, to look for new and different ideas and avoid becoming monotonous—and from Borges I learned the massive importance of imagination. From Kundera I learned the aesthetics of digression within the fabric of the novel.

It’s hard at this point to list all the influences that have affected me. Maybe some of the most important influences were children’s stories and comics.


WWB: Who are your favorite writers from a literary tradition other than your own and how have they influenced your writing?

AS: Many authors have influenced me but maybe the most influential have been Borges and English and French fantasy writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.


Translated by Jonathan Wright.


Read an interview with Jonathan Wright, translator of Frankenstein in Baghdad

Read more interviews with finalists for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Published May 21, 2018   Copyright 2018 Eric M. B. Becker

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