by Rana Asfour
BookFabulous is over the moon for the triumph of 'The Watermelon Boys' by Iraqi-Welsh author Ruqaya Izzidien whose book we raved about on the BookFabulous Instagram feed just before its publication. The author was one of six winners to receive the 2019 Betty Trask Award bestowed annually by the Society of Authors presented for a first novel by a writer under 35. Judged by Ben Brooks, Elanor Dymott and Vaseem Khan, its past winners include Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Hari Kunzru and Sarah Waters.
'The Watermelon Boys' is an intelligent and well-crafted re-telling of the role the civilians of the Middle East played during WWI to secure independence from Ottoman rule and define present day borders.
The novel is set in Iraq, a country like most of its neighbours at the time joined the ranks of the British forces after assurances that once the war was won, the British would assist the country in securing independence from Ottoman rule. As such, the novel follows the lives of watermelon seller Ahmad and his family who cross paths with Welsh teenager Carwyn, who enlists in the Mesopotamia Campaign after a fallout with his abusive stepfather. Soldier Carwyn and civilian-turned-freedom fighter Ahmad form the backbone to a novel that sets itself apart by refreshingly focusing on a tale told from the point of view of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East as opposed to that of the colonialists'. The novel as such highlights the Baghdadis' role in the establishment of present day Iraq and how the political and social attitudes at the time mired its independence with instabilities that continue well into present day history.
'This award is so rewarding to me because it feels like a victory for Arab voices and stories,' Izzidien told Hoopoe, the publishers of her book. 'It is proof that the English-language literary scene stands a lot to gain from harnessing and promoting the lesser-told stories, even, and especially, when they challenge our comfort and our prevailing narratives'.
Hosted by poet Jackie Kay MBE, with an introduction by the President of the SoA, Philip Pullman, 9 awards were presented to 32 writers with a host of debut names joining established award-winning writers of fiction, non-fiction and poetry each sharing a prize fund of £100,000. The awards were announced at a ceremony at Southwark Cathedral in the UK.
In a statement speaking about the Society of Authors’ Awards, Jackie Kay said:
'I'm enormously proud and gratified to have been granted this most lovely opportunity of presenting writers with the Society of Authors’ Awards. These awards, I know from personal experience, are potentially life-changing. They bring writers in from the cold. They give writers a huge boost and validation. They tell them that their trials and tribulations have been worth it after all, after the long haul. Writing is a confidence game, and often writers' confidence is shot to pieces. An award like this can put self-doubt in the cupboard for a while'.