Hisham Matar’s memoir wins this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize
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On the evening of 24 May, over 350 people attended an awards ceremony hosted at the British Library in London. They waited in anticipation as the chair of judges, Ahdaf Soueif, announced Hisham Matar as the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017 for his memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between (Viking). This accolade follows close on the heels of his 2017 Pulitzer Prize (Biography or Autobiography) win. Incidentally, Matar picked up his Pulitzer yesterday, and his publisher at Viking, Mary Mount, proceeded to accept the Folio in his stead.
This year’s prize—now sponsored by Rathbones, and presented to the best work of literature in English, irrespective of form—was also judged by Rachel Holmes and Lucy Hughes-Hallet, who handpicked an eight-strong shortlist, equal parts fiction and non-fiction. Among those recognised were China Miéville and Madeleine Thien.
Born in New York, and perhaps best known as a novelist, Matar’s debut, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and won several international prizes in the following year. By the time his second novel, The Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011, his literary reputation preceded him. The writer, who now resides and works between London and New York, is of Libyan lineage, and spent chunks of his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo.
With The Return, Matar charts new career territories into non-fiction, but his fiction has always stitched in slices of biography and Libyan political history. It is an account of the author’s journey home, and a memoir in search of his missing father, Jaballa Matar, who was kidnapped and imprisoned as an opponent-in-exile of Qaddafi’s regime. Of the prize-winning work, Ahdaf Soueif says: “The Return shows what a novelist at the top of his game can do with non-fiction. It gives the reader the same aesthetic, the same satisfaction of the great literary works that enter our lives and stay with us forever.”
In his initial executive order in the beginning of this year, US President Donald Trump’s travel ban affected seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa—including Libya—and many in the literary world resisted and reacted to this by vowing to publish works exclusively from these excluded countries as a counter-narrative to the White House’s story of stereotype and silencing.
The Pulitzer Prize can only be awarded to an American author. Hisham Matar—and by extension, the new eligibility of the Rathbones Folio Prize—breaks down genre binaries in his prize-winning books, free-floating between fiction and non-fiction. But it is the fluidity of borders beyond the book that are worthy of recognition, and that we should return to as we imagine new worlds.