For a long time there has been a debate about which form of prose or art is best suited to describing contemporary events. Some suggest the novel, while others advocate photography, documentaries, theatre or art installations – and more recently many have cited literary reportage.
The subjective art of reportage is winning over readers as the daily newspapers and radio programmes are giving up their attempts to explain the world. A few years ago the German cultural journal Lettre International initiated the Ulysses Award in order to bring more attention to this art. The award is presented each autumn to the best works of literary reportage.
Although the prize had only been awarded two times so far, it has already fulfilled the essential role of a literary award: to highlight wonderful books and authors; and to bring to the world’s attention people, stories and conflicts that might otherwise remain invisible.
So where, one might ask, are the books from Scandinavia? Sweden alone has a stronger tradition of reportage than many other countries. In fact, when the award is presented on October 15 Swedish literature will indeed have a prominent place. The keynote speaker at the ceremony is to be Sven Lindqvist.
Dagens Nyheter, 15 September 2005, Stockholm
The Lettre Ulysses Award for The Art of Reportage first created in Berlin three years ago, has been won by the British-born writer Alexandra Fuller for a compelling description of a journey made in Central Africa with a war veteran and mercenary who revisits the scenes of his war-time experiences in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Fuller was thrilled when she learned that she had hoisted the € 50,000 top Lettre Ulysses Award for her book “Scribbling the Cat”. The ten-member international jury hailed the book a "spellbinding literary accomplishment."
The book provides an authentic insight into the troubled history of Central Africa, and the violence of decolonisation and guerrilla warfare. The writer, who describes herself as an African, was recently asked about her views on wars. She said that while she hated wars, she could not hate the soldiers whose burden it was to fight them. "I don't know which is worse for a soldier - to know that you have been lied to and to live with fury for the rest of your life, or to believe the lies for the rest of your life and to live with hatred and arrogance."
Inter Press Service News Agency, October 2005
A major surprise at the Lettre Ulysses Awards ceremony was the € 20,000 third prize to 'Riverbend' - a pseudonym for a 26-year-old Iraqi woman who began writing a weblog in August 2003, that ultimately was published in book form as “Baghdad Burning” in June 2005.
Catheryn Kilgarriff, head of Marion Boyars Publishers in London which has brought out the book, said at the award ceremony that the writer had been overwhelmed on hearing that “Baghdad Burning” had been nominated for an Art of Reportage award.She read a message from 'Riverbend' saying: "The blog began as a way to vent the frustrations and anguish over the situation in Baghdad in 2003. Through intermittent electricity and a phone line that disappeared for days at a time, l blogged because l felt like it was the only way to get my voice heard. I never imagined, however, that so many people would read the blog and that it would become recognised as a window to Iraq under occupation."
European Tribune, 26 October 2005
Many journalists believe that good reportage has to be as objective as possible. But among the finalists, whether it be a Moroccan anthropologist who describes his pilgrimage to Mecca, or an Indian living in New York who returns to his hometown of Bombay, or the Spiegel reporter Carolin Emcke who describes her experiences in Columbia: all chose the radical first-person form. The wholeheartedly subjective reveals the objective. Reading these reportages reminds you of the advantage that the word has over the assumed immediacy of the image: it can be simultaneously interior and exterior, can simultaneously reveal and reflect.
Der Tagesspiegel, 15 October 2005, Berlin
The fact that women were almost equally represented among the finalists was to some extent emphasised by the absence of the winner: Alexandra Fuller is about to give birth to her third child and so was unable to fly to Berlin. In her reportage she travelled with a former mercenary to the scenes of his murders – which also became a journey into Fuller’s past, as she had spent her childhood in Africa. An honest, unnerving text, which makes the relationship between reporter and interview partner transparent: Fuller reports on complicity through knowledge and attempts to defend herself from the growing intimacy with a killer who is slowly beginning to understand what he has done.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 October 2005, Zurich
Alexandra Fuller was awarded first prize and € 50,000 for her book “Scribbling the Cat”, a report of a journey with a white African soldier who fought his war in what was then Rhodesia, where the author grew up, and who had become something that she calls cathedral “a monument to damage and shame”. As a child she had worshipped her soldiers, much like children elsewhere worship saints. The Lettre Ulysses Award is named after that first great adventurous traveller and implies that the reporter is someone who reports from abroad. The three award-winning texts, however, are the very ones in which the first-person, the reporter’s “I”, does not tell of contemporary evils in foreign lands, or of past evils at home, but rather a real “I” explores the world, a world that is their own.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17 October 2005, Frankfurt
The world is more complex than superficial appearances would suggest, as is powerfully illustrated by Alexandra Fuller reportage “Scribbling the Cat”. Fuller was born in England, raised in Central Africa, and now lives in Wyoming, USA. While on a visit to Zambia, she gets to know “K”, who had tortured and killed for “freedom and democracy” in the former Rhodesia. He believed the old lie that it was good and right to fight for your own country. Years later he is left alone with the demons that haunt him. He doesn’t understand that the society no longer considers his actions acceptable. Fuller undertakes a haunting journey with him to the scenes of the wars in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which at the same time becomes a journey into her own past. And for the reader it is a glimpse into the soul of a war that had no soul … “Reality is a cold shower” says Alexandra Fuller. Yet the true reporter helps to ensure that the warmth of awareness and empathy does not get lost along the way.
Neues Deutschland, 20 October 2005, Berlin
Reportage writers are the trackers of untold tales, crossing borders between genres, between documentary reports and literary forms. They report from the scenes that exist in the shadow of publicity. With curiosity and empathy their books give a face to those who only appear on the news as the mere statistics of victims or perpetrators. It is the great merit of the Ulysses Award, worth € 50,000, that it manages to bring these forgotten stories to the public attention that they deserve. In the end Alexandra Fuller’s text, which was the most literarily challenging, won out over Abdellah Hammoudi’s report about his pilgrimage to Mecca and Riverbend’s Baghdad blog. Fuller’s report is marked by a completely unsentimental style, which pitilessly gives the former killer enough rope to hang himself through his boorish racist remarks and, in the sparseness of the prose, is reminiscent of the work of J.M. Coetzee.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 October 2005, Munich
“Reportage is a terribly neglected genre” according to the journalist Isabel Hilton, speaker of the jury and presenter of the third Ulysses Award for Reportage, which was announced in Berlin last Saturday. The award, which is endowed with a total of € 100,000, was initiated by the cultural journal Lettre three years ago. In his opening speech the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist described reportage as the “Wahrheitskunst”, the art of truth, which should act as an appeal to world opinion.
Die Tageszeitung, 22/23 October 2005, Berlin
Non-fiction, topicality and the credibility of a recognisable first-person writer, these were the criteria which were the crucial factors in the presentation of the international Ulysses Award for Literary Reportage on Saturday at the Tipi Zelt. All seven finalists’ texts dealt with what the old master Ryszard Kapuscinski calls the “violent paradise”.
Fuller’s “Scribbling the Cat” is not only a story about the universal soldier, but also about her family and her nation, as she faces up to them. This gives her reportage a humane generosity for which she justifiably received the first prize. It is also so wonderfully written that she has without a doubt fully earned the attribute “literary”.
Berliner Zeitung, 17 October 2005, Berlin
British-born Alexandra Fuller received the prestigious Lettre Ulysses Award in Berlin for her account of a nightmare journey with a Rhodesian war veteran and mercenary who decides to revisit the scenes of his wartime experiences in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. She was one of seven writers, broadcasters and journalists who had been short-listed for the award that was announced in Berlin late on Saturday. Her powerful account of her African travels published under the title “Scribbling the Cat” earned her praise from the ten-member strong international jury, which hailed the work as “a spellbinding literary accomplishment”.
Deutsche Welle, 17 October 2005, Bonn