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.