The UAE literary season is not only about arriving blockbuster-selling authors and award winners. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and The National annually support homegrown talent with a joint short story competition.
Launched at the start of the month, the rules were simple: each author had the choice of tackling the proposed theme "Gone" or submitting an entry titled The Puppet Master in any genre they wished. Each story could not be less than 1,500 words and no longer than 2,000 words.
Out of 62 entries received, 10 were short listed by The National's Arts&Life editors and forwarded to this year's competition judge, the Abu Dhabi-based author Micheline Habib, who went on to choose the winners.
First Place: Gone by Hajer Almosleh
Prize: iPad 3 and publication in Arts&Life on Monday
The Dubai resident scooped up the prize with her chilling entry Gone, about a woman trying to find her voice. Almosleh, 45, says the central character's struggle mirrors her own creative battles.
A Palestinian poet, a copywriter and a translator, Almosleh initially had trouble expressing herself on the larger canvas that is the short story, although she has published a short story collection, in Arabic, in 2009. "A poet is what I am first and foremost," she explains. "And as a poet you have to be succinct because each poem is a nucleus, in a way. The character was someone struggling with words on how to express herself because all she wants to do is really empty herself."
Almosleh describes the short story's lyrical flavour as a mix of poetry and prose. "I would like to think of it as a chameleon linguistically," she offers.
The judge Habib agrees, praising Gone's verve and insight. "This story is the best of the 10, by all means," she says. "It is a great one in terms of style, choice of words and the psychological insight."
Second Place: Gone ... The Day She Left by Jane Strachan
Prize: iPad mini
The Abu Dhabi writer, 53 and originally from South Africa, recalls how her story's important twist came after a sleepless night. "I did spend a while awake one night, wondering how to ensure a twist," she says. "I like the idea of a story that takes the reader by surprise." Strachan says the competition's general theme was equally thrilling and challenging. "I found the theme useful in that it provided the starting point, or the seed if you like, from which the story grew," she says.
"With a theme such as 'gone', one could have taken the story in so many directions, but one had to hold on to it as the core, recurring concept. It provided a discipline."
Habib praises the realistic manner in which the theme of domestic violence was tackled. "The writer depicted that in a way far from exaggeration," she says. "The two characters are marvellously woven. The sentences and phrases she uses serve that very much. The dialogue conveys the inner voice of the characters and gives us a clear image of what they are and what they are going through."
Third Place: Postcard by Janet Olearski
Prize: iPad Nano
Olearski has always been writing. The Abu Dhabi educator and writer, originally from the UK, collects anecdotes in a notepad and keeps them stored for a possible short story or the beginning of a novel; she regularly submits short stories to numerous global writing competitions. This particular competition's theme was the trigger to turn the accumulated observations into a short story.
"It was the missing link in a way," she says. "It's all about the process and once I started, I just kept working at it. The competition gave me confidence in that I can do this." Habib highlighted the sharply drawn protagonists. "The language and the creation of the characters and scenes are good," she says. "Although I think she could have done better, especially in terms of the ending."
The wrap up
Coming in fourth and fifth's was Dubai's Shahd Thani (The 27-year-old Emirati is studying for a Master's degree in strategic marketing from the University of Wollongong in Dubai) and Mohit Mandal, (a 20-year-old Indian student at New York University Abu Dhabi) who will each receive an iPod Nano. The winners will take part in a discussion as part of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC). They will appear tomorrow at the Discussion Sofa at 1pm with Micheline Habib and the author Abdelaziz Al Rachedi.
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