Lived resistance

Adina Hoffman wins 2010 JQ-Wingate Prize.

American-Jewish author Adina Hoffman was last night named the winner of the 2010 JQ-Wingate Literary Prize. The prize, whose former winners include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith and WG Sebald, celebrates books by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors that stimulate interest in Jewish culture.

On what Jewish Quarterley's Rachel Lasserson called a "historic day for Jewish-Palestinian relations", Hoffman's biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, was proclaimed winner from a shortlist that also included works by Shlomo Sand and Julia Franck.

"All four judges fell in love with this year's winning book," explained Anne Karpf, chair of the judging panel, describing it as, "combining meticulous research with literary sensitivity and a deep humanity: a beautifully written portrait of lived resistance."

The first published biography of a Palestinian writer in any language, Hoffman's book exposes readers to the hitherto largely unknown world of contemporary Palestinian intellectuals in Israel. As Hoffman herself explains:

Most Westerners see Palestinians through the lens of the newspaper and television set - where they're almost always depicted as either terrorists or faceless victims. The idea of writing about a whole range of very varied and specific individuals almost never enters into the conversation.

Described by Eric Ormsby in the TLS as "not only the biography of a remarkable man, but an act of reclamation against the erosion of memory", Hoffman's book draws attention to the specifically literary implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians, she writes,

were not just unlucky to be the victims in this grand historical drama; they were also cursed to have found themselves, a basically oral people, wrestling rhetorically with perhaps the most print-obsessed people on the planet.

In her introduction to the book, Hoffman expresses the reservations that she, as a Jewish author, felt about tackling such a subject, expecting suspicion from both Arab and Israeli communities. Whether last night's prize will go some way towards proving Hoffman's fears wrong remains to be seen.

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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood