Dima Alzayat on the challenge of short stories, writing about Syria, and winning the 2019 ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award.
Above: Dima Alzayat (left) with host Jackie Kay at the 2019 Society of Authors' Awards ceremony. Photo © Adrian Pope
How did it feel to win the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award this year? What do awards like this mean to you?
It was a really big surprise! I know that’s common to say, but when I submit to an award, I’m aware of how slim the odds are that my work will make it through. Winning the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award was particularly special because it’s an award judged by my fellow writers, and to receive it on stage from Jackie Kay, who I admire so much, was a great honour.
One of the judges, Irenosen Okojie, described your winning story as ‘Utterly mesmeric. Explores what it means to be other with such verve, nuance and specificity’. Can you tell us your inspiration behind 'Once We Were Syrians'?
I was born in Syria and lived there until I was seven. Watching from a distance what’s happened and is happening to Syrian people and feeling how that ripples across the Syrian diaspora has been infuriating and heartbreaking. I began the story in some attempt to capture what gets lost or ignored in attempts to ‘cover’ or ‘explain’ Syria, whether that be in the news or in fiction.
What do you love about the short story? What drew you to writing short stories?
Characters are what drive me to write, and I think the short story is the ideal vehicle for a character-driven rather than a plot-driven story. Most of my stories begin with my thinking of a specific sentence a character might say, or a particular experience they might have had that has or will strongly shape them and the choices they’ll make.
What challenges, if any, have you come across as a short story writer? What would you like to see change?
A new writer is interested in getting exposure for their work, and most entryways to that exposure – literary journals, awards and competitions – require the writer to submit short stories to be judged or published. In that way, there is great opportunity for the short story. But when it comes to publishing short story collections, the industry is very hesitant, and much more invested in the novel. I’m interested in writing short stories and novels, but I strongly feel that the short story is its own distinct form, not merely a stepping-stone towards a novel. It would be nice to see that distinction better recognised.
What do you hope this award – and others like it – do for your writing and career?
Like most writers, I write with the hope of being read. The exposure that comes with an award like this is reassuring in that the stories I work so hard on might in the future find readers who will connect with them.
What one short story could you not live without?
There are many, but I’ll say ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever. It’s at once expansive and personal, surreal and realistic. I like that it defies easy definitions of what makes a short story; it’s an epic in twelve pages.
About Dima Alzayat
Dima Alzayat was born in Damascus, Syria, grew up in San Jose, California, and now lives in Manchester. She was the winner of the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2019, a 2018 Northern Writers’ Award, the 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize, the 2015 Bernice Slote Award, runner-up in the 2018 Deborah Rogers Award and the 2018 Zoetrope: All-Story Competition, and was Highly Commended in the 2013 Bridport Prize.
About the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award
The ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award (£1,000) is for a short story written by an author who has been accepted for publication at least once before. Entries close on 31 October 2019. It is generously supported by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS).