Interview with Arifa Akbar, Literary Editor of the Independent

Arifa Akbar is Literary Editor of The Independent and inewspapers. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize in 2013, the Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2014 and is on the judging panel for the current Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. The literary prize, which is open for entries until 31 August, offers an opportunity for established and emerging poets and fiction writers to connect with a wider, international audience with prizes including publication. We speak to Arifa about what makes a short story captivating.

A: What is your perspective on the short story as a medium?
AA: I think it offers the greatest possibilities for novelty and experimentalism. But I suspect it is also the form that is the hardest to master: it might be easier to write a good novel than to write a good short story because an author has to grip and move the reader in a far shorter space of time.

A: Why do you think people choose to write short fiction?
AA: New writers might consider it a good starting point for its brevity and its flexibility – so it might help them find a voice, or play with voices. Experienced writers might choose it for its formal challenges – they must create a world as complete and as believable as any in long fiction, but in a fraction of the word count. I think short story writers like the form because it also offers such flexibility: a short story can be a paragraph or 40 pages; it can contain just one moment or a lifetime. There is such a lot of potential in its range.

A: You have chaired author interviews at Asia House and the South Asian Literary Festival. Which author interviews have been your highlights and which authors have you enjoyed speaking to?
AA: I really enjoyed speaking to Anita Anand earlier this year about her book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, which is a biography on an Indian Suffragette and a kind of hidden history because most of us didn’t know of Sophia Duleep Singh until Anita Anand’s book was published.

As well as being a well researched and absorbing dynastic family history, Sophia’s life story and struggles also have a contemporary resonance, in the light of the fourth – or fifth – wave feminism that we are seeing now. I also liked speaking to Kamila Shamsie last year about her Orange-shortlisted book, A God in Every Stone, which is fiction with a strong, independently-minded woman at its heart.

A: What did you notice about last year’s short fiction entries in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award?
AA: A sense of daring – entrants seemed to be playing with form and structure in original and fresh ways and there was such variety in subject matter.

A: What makes a short story stick out for you?
AA: A variety of things: emotional depth or resonance. The sense that this is a glimpse, however brief, into a world that is much larger, and a character that is much more complex, than the bounds of the story. An originality of form – so something new and exciting in the way a story is told.

The Aesthetica Creative Writing Award is now open for entries. Register by 31 August at

1. Agne Stasiauskaite,  Bibliography. From the Aesthetica Art Prize 2014.