Interview with Mohamed Alnaas, winner of the 15th International Prize for Arabic Fiction
How did it feel to win?
It’s a strange feeling. I still haven’t digested the news. This celebration from readers, from people, from family and friends, makes me feel proud and makes me feel that all the years I spent in isolation, writing and working hard… it gives me hope that people do read and that literature ultimately triumphs.
This is your first novel. Did you expect this kind of reaction when you were writing?
Not exactly. Before this novel, I wrote three manuscripts. The first was in 2012 and it was about the Libyan war. It could have been published but I am glad that it wasn’t because if we read it now, we might find it disastrous! I wrote another one in 2016 that wasn’t published either and then a third one in 2017 that I tore up immediately. As soon as I finished writing and editing it, I threw it out and didn’t bother trying to publish it. So effectively, this is my first novel.
I didn’t expect any of this. Especially because I wrote these earlier manuscripts and tried to publish them. I tried hard to publish the first one. So when I was writing Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, my only wish was to see the book in my hands. It was a victory for me when the publisher, my friend Shawki Al-Enaizy gave me a copy of the book. I felt like a father seeing his child for the first time.
Do you think that the themes of gender roles and the definition of masculinity in closed communities will appear in future works?
Not necessarily. I love stories. I love discovering stories. In Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, I wanted to know what this proverb “A family and their uncle Milad” wanted to say. But my first love is stories. I could write a novel about shame or about the war. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a certain issue. A novelist should not exhaust the same subject matter because it garnered attention or prizes. Uncle Milad’s story is over and there is room for others. Libya is full of stories and different topics.
What advice did you wish you received early on?
There are many! The first is to throw out your early writings and not bother with publishing them. You could share them with friends, but not somewhere where they can be looked up in the future.
The second is to read. Reading is a writer’s sustenance. People in general should never stop reading, but for a writer in particular, reading should be breakfast, lunch, cigarettes and everything in life.
The most important piece of advice, and this is something that no one taught me, and I learned it from baking, is patience. A writer must be patient when it comes to their work. Writing is very hard work. They have to be patient with publishing. To look critically at their work, to rewrite it. They shouldn’t like their words too much because then they might not want to edit out a single word. There is plenty of advice.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you learned how to bake in order to write the novel. Do you still bake now that you are done writing it?
Yes, but only a little. The last time I baked something was one or two weeks before Ramadan. The problem for writers is that they get involved in new literary projects. For example, now my project demands that I learn Italian. And learning to read and listen to the language takes up the time that I used to spend baking. But I still try to bake. This morning at breakfast, I had a baguette and spent some time examining it critically, as if I were a food blogger.