23rd November 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin
Our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, was one of the judges for Published Novel category at this year's Muslim Writers Awards. Here he looks about why he agreed to become involved and what he hopes readers will gain by reading the winner, Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shariah Mandanipour.
One of the most important and satisfying aspects of bookselling is recommending books to people. We can handsell individual books to particular customers or we can promote titles more widely by featuring them in windows and in-store promotions and displays, or on websites.
On previous occasions when I've been invited to join the judging panel for a literary prize, I've preferred to see the process as an extension of the same idea, as an opportunity to recommend books even more widely. Sales figures certainly confirm that literary prizes play an increasing role in guiding the nation's reading habits.
But when I was asked to be one of the judges in the Published Novel category at this year's Muslim Writers Awards, it needed a little thought. I'm an atheist and I have Jewish heritage. It would be hypocritical, surely, to offer my support?
But it serves no purpose to fall back on the human instinct for tribalism and I certainly see one of the primary goals of the Muslim Writers awards as breaking down some of the preconceptions by which Muslims as a whole are too often judged.
Art is one of the best ways we have of expressing our humanity. It moves as well as informs, the better to teach its lesson. So what better way for a bookseller to play a part in helping people - including myself - to appreciate a different culture than to help promote some of the finest contemporary literature it has to offer? So I said yes to the organisers of the Muslim Book Awards and the reading began.
One of the benefits of being a literary prize judge is the opportunity to discuss a set of books in depth. Like a particularly intensive reading group, we had to do more than just express our opinions; we had to subject each book to rigorous analysis. But deciding on what we wanted from our winner proved to be the most illuminating aspect of the discussion.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story, as its title suggests, tackles the pervasive influence of the notorious Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Culture on freedom of expression in Iran. It does so quite ingeniously by recounting a love story in two ways: as a writer would wish to tell it and as it must be told to comply with the Ministry's policies, with the writer offering a commentary as he composes his two different versions. Shariar Mandanipour was himself banned from being published in Iran for many years.
This would hardly seem to depict an image of Islam with which the West is unfamiliar. What purpose would be served, if it were to be our winner, by reinforcing it?
My feeling was that it portrays far more than oppression. The character of the writer - autobiographical to some extent - challenges state censorship as far as he can. He also has a considerable appreciation for the roots of his culture, most notably in the allusions to classic literature that allow him to bypass some proscriptions through allegory.
The Ministry's censor is also fascinatingly drawn, putting a human face on the state's silencing of dissent and anti-Islamic activity. His objections to the apparently innocuous are subtly argued and offer great insight into both the effectiveness of censorship and how the mind can be disciplined into thinking a certain way.
It might have been easier for us to pick, say, Aamer Hussain's The Cloud Messenger as our winner: its protagonist, Mehran, has retained his appreciation for Islamic culture while assimilating successfully into Western society. But while it might have conveyed a more politically desirable message, it would not have been the correct artistic choice - it was not the best novel.
But with our winner, I do hope that, as well as rewarding a simply wonderful novel, we've picked a book that will resonate with readers, regardless of their backgorund or beliefs. Censoring an Iranian Love Story and the four other books on the shortlist each depict very different portraits of Islam, confirming the diversity and creativity of Muslim literature.. Our culture would be poorer without it.
Read more about the Muslim Writers Awards
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