14 June 2018

2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize Winner Lur Alghurabi

With the closing date of The Scribe Nonfiction Prize fast approaching, we hear from Lur Alghurabi, last years winner of The Scribe Nonfiction Prize.

A few months after winning The 2017 Scribe Prize for Young Writers, I’m now developing my memoir into a book-length work with the support and mentorship of Scribe Senior Editor David Golding. At the time I submitted my piece Letters from the Grave, I knew how important writing this story was to me, to my family, to our heritage, but when I wanted to expand it and make it a larger work, I struggled to find the right direction. I started Letters as dispersed journal entries written months or years apart, and I sometimes felt that the final 10,000 word piece I submitted was barely scraped together: I questioned if I had more stories to the memoir. What if all my conscience was collectively capped at 10,000 words? What if there were no other stories in my life worth telling? What if interesting things stopped happening, where would the other 90,000 words come from? I found myself going back to the very basics of writing: what is my story and how will I tell it?

My mentorship with Scribe is allowing me to find this direction: I’m learning where to begin with a larger work and develop structure and clarity. I’m learning how to dive into memory and pay attention to the stories (and the people in them) that got my life to where it is. Writing them down, I’m conscious of how they speak to one another. Unlike with past writing, my editing is now geared towards an overarching purpose. I’m learning that this is how to write a book.

Winning the Prize Scribe has given me much more faith in my own work. It’s opened doors that I didn’t have the confidence to knock on before. A few weeks after the Prize I wrote my very first pitch to Scum Mag and that was my first paid publication, leading to more work in Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. Writing more and writing better is probably the most valuable, important thing I’ve had over this past year.

If you’re considering entering, keep in mind that one of the greatest things about the Scribe Prize is that none of the shortlistees or winners has a similar writing style. The Prize celebrates such diverse formats and areas of nonfiction that it never demands you follow a standard. This gives you freedom to experiment and have fun with your work, so do exactly that. Push the boundaries of what you can do and see where that takes you. If you’re hesitant, ask questions. Talk to me about ideas, or ask me about choosing, preparing and crafting a prize entry or anything else you’re wondering about (twitter: @lur_ag, my DMs are always open).

Letters from the Grave – Excerpt

My father jokes about the time he stole the wallet of one of Saddam’s men to distract him from killing someone. He jokes about sneaking into his Baathist friend’s office and eating the papers listing students who once made fun of Saddam. He jokes about using the Nuclear Commission’s catering budget to send food to the orphans of the Gulf War. He jokes about the time he swallowed petrol as he tried to steal it from a car’s tank using a hose to buy us food during the Shaaban Revolution. My father always jokes about our country.

My father does not joke about his mother dying before he could see her again. He does not joke about her shrine, where old men and women now go to pray and ask her to heal their illnesses and end their wars. He does not joke about the dreams he has of her, where she leaves Iraq and joins us here in Australia, saying she will never leave her favourite son. He takes the best care of her, she says to her other children, in my father’s dreams. He does not joke about his last phone call with her, saying won’t you come and see me, not knowing he is not allowed into our country. My father never jokes about our exile.

A few years before I was born, my father was asked to sign a piece of paper stating he accepts execution should he reveal information about working for Saddam’s nuclear weapons project. A few years after I was born, my father was also asked to sign a piece of paper stating he accepts execution should he withhold information about working for Saddam’s nuclear weapons project. He signed both pieces of paper, both times at gunpoint.

Two years ago, I met the man who headed the UN’s disarmament program in Iraq. We spoke about his time in Iraq and what it was like being part of the team that caused my father to sign his (second) acceptance of execution. He told me a lot of men disappeared and they didn’t know where to. He would ask to meet with them again to make sure they were alive, but Saddam’s men would always say they’re out of town, or they’re feeling sick, or they’re getting married.

These men, engineers who worked on the weapons without choice, just like my father, did not live for long after their cooperation with the UN. My father on the other hand fled the country in a matter of days. How he managed to do so, in Iraq we have a saying: athra bdafra, or a kick and then a trip, meaning that someone arrives somewhere purely by chance or luck, such as being kicked and then tripping until they get there. We left the country after a kick and a trip, more kicks than trips, whereas many of my father’s friends at the Nuclear Commission only left the UN’s investigation rooms to go to their graves.

However, this is not a story of survival. This is a story of exile, and to put it simply, a different style of death that doesn’t necessarily involve a mass grave dug into the ground. Death comes in many shapes, and a mass grave can very well be above ground with corpses that move, eat and sleep.

Thanks to lists such as the ones my father spent his university years swallowing, we grew up afraid of making jokes about our government, or even laughing if someone else were to tell them. But we also grew into fearing many more forms of resistance, such as talking about the regime’s impact on our lives, our health and our mentality. We grew up afraid of dancing, afraid of praying and afraid of writing. I wrote this work so that it may be a dance and a prayer. A dance to our ability to write now that the regime is no longer standing outside our windows, and a prayer that we write more, and that we do it for as long as we live.

Now in its sixth year, The 2018 Scribe Nonfiction Prize is a unique development award to foster talented writers aged 30 and under writing longform work. Entries between 5,000 and 10,000 words are welcome across all nonfiction genres, including memoir, journalism, essay, and creative nonfiction.

The shortlist will be selected by Inez Trambas (Editorial committee of Voiceworks), Shu-Ling Chua (Editorial committee of Voiceworks 2016 – 2017, Writer for FeminartsyPeril Magazine and Meanjin), Bethany Atkinson-Quinton (Creative Producer, Express Media), and Myfanwy Jones (Project Manager, Scribe Publications and author of Parlour Games for Modern Famalies and LEAP).  Submissions will be judged against the following criteria: originality and creativity, voice, readership and commercial potential, literary merit, and content and structure. The winner will then be selected by Scribe Publications.

Entries close 11.59pm Sunday September 9.

The Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers is presented in partnership with Scribe Publications and Word For Word National Non-Fiction Festival.

Ready to submit? Head to the page for submission guidelines, terms and conditions, and to submit your entry!