Poetry ringtones, wretched money, and blogging Arabic literature: an interview with M. Lynx Qualey
by Sal Robinson
The blog Arabic Literature (in English) hasn’t been around for very long, but it covers with vigor and depth a giant field of literary activity that still remains relatively unknown to English-speaking audiences, and a field that’s rapidly changing. I was in touch with the blogger who runs it, M. Lynx Qualey, a couple of weeks ago, after I’d quoted her in a blogpost about the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, and I asked her a couple of bloggerly questions about her experiences and where she looks for information about new Arabic lit.
MobyLives: How did you come to start up the blog?
M. Lynx Qualey: In 2009, I was reading a collection of Iraqi short stories edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa. I had already reviewed some Arabic literature, but here I wanted just a little space to talk about what had struck me in the stories. Mustafa noticed my ramblings, and he encouraged me, and continues to encourage me—as do many other writers and translators. The blog seems to fill a previously neglected space.
Indeed, I wish I had funding to do more. I’d like to engage “correspondents” and cover the region’s literatures more widely, but thus far I haven’t figured out how to do that—to have money while also maintaining my independence and credibility.
Moby: This has been an incredible couple of weeks for Jonas Hassen Khemiri, whose open letter to the Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask about latent racism became the most linked-to text in Swedish history, and which he recently wrote about in the Op-Ed section of New York Times. Have you seen other writers experience the effects of social media like this, or has it happened to any of your blog posts?
MLQ: Poetry with social commentary is often shared on a wide scale. For instance, Tamim al-Barghouti’s poem “Fil-Quds” (“In Jerusalem”) had more than a million views on YouTube after he read it on air during the “Prince of Poets” competition (video here). It was circulated online; snippets from it became ringtones. Other popular poetry also circulates widely.
As you might expect, I haven’t seen any interest in the millions. Things that get shared in the tens of thousands tend to be list items, such as “5 Arabic books to read before you die,” (interviewer note: this list will still make you drool— or at least, it does that to me) and the “top 105 books of the 20th century.” Otherwise, they’re things that fit certain expectations (Arabic love poetry) or a political moment (translations of Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s “If the People Wanted Life One Day”).
Moby: Can you talk a bit about the challenges you and the blog have faced, as you’ve covered controversial topics or run into obviously sore spots, when it comes to the reputations of authors, publishing houses, prizes, or book fairs?
MLQ: I think blogs matter to the extent that they are honest. Book blogs are often too promotional, and starry-eyed promotion ultimately doesn’t do readers any favors. In newspapers as well as in blogs, commentary on Arabic literature (in translation) often falls into this trap: mealy-mouthed praise for books that are really not very good but have some socio-political interest.
As to criticism, everyone is sensitive to it, and I empathize deeply with that sensitivity. If I find fault with a book, authors are sometimes angry and can be stinging or cold. A translator’s wife once leapt to his defense in the comments on my blog. Publishers can also have their angry comments.
But it’s a far different matter when you are criticizing an institution like a prize or book fair or state or Big Culture initiative. These are all tied up in wretched money, and it is hard for people to criticize them and still get lucrative jobs and invitations to fairs. For instance, this year I criticized the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. I am certainly not the only one, but for some reason my criticism was targeted, and I was dis-invited from this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The ADIBF has become one of the big, central events in Arab publishing, and punishing writers or publishers with exclusion is a good way to silence criticism. I had recourse to international journalists who took up my defense, and I was re-invited. Others do not have these resources.
On the other hand, I also have been accused of not being hard enough on the Gulf’s Big Culture initiatives, which have created such a shift in the arts and literary world in the last five years. I am trying to take each initiative separately.
Moby: What do you read and follow to stay on top of what’s going on in the Arab literary world: blogs, publisher’s catalogues, journals, newspapers, the contents of certain bookstores?
MLQ: Facebook is an invaluable resource. Authors and publishers don’t have to be your “friends”; I think anyone can subscribe to publisher Mohamed Hashem’s updates, for instance. I also do Twitter. Of course I check Arab (mostly Egyptian) newspapers, and have various Google searches set up. It also happens that people contact me. Many bookstores in Cairo are valuable sources; I am confounded by the assertion that the Arab world has no “modern” bookstores.
I was supposed to speak on a panel at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair with the exceptionally talented Egyptian writer, blogger, and commentator Youssef Rakha, but our panel was cancelled after my dis-invitation. I follow Youssef’s sometimes biting commentary at http://yrakha.com/.
Moby: What are we missing over here? I assume it’s a lot. Do you have a sense of any new and exciting developments in Arabic writing?
MLQ: There is a lot that’s translated and published in English. But since most of it’s done by small publishing houses, many of these books come out in just a handful of copies and disappear without anyone having heard of them. Sonallah Ibrahim’s beautiful Talossos was translated (beautifully) by Hosam Aboul-ela as Stealth. But then the publisher, Aflame, went out of business just as the book was coming out.
Also, it can be difficult to publish novels that lack a “topical, timely” hook. Rawi Hage mentioned the possibility of translating Elias al-Diri in an offhand comment during a recent interview. If Rawi Hage did it, sure, a publisher could get interested. But otherwise, al-Diri’s not very “of the moment.” Also, translators have largely been clumped in Egypt and thus have met and grown attached to Egyptian authors. This has meant authors from other countries are less-translated.
What’s new and exciting? I think the surge in Arabic graphic novels is tremendously exciting. Political cartoons have long been an important part of public discourse in many Arab countries, and I think marrying this trend to longer-form narrative has fun potential. There has also been a shift in the last decade in re-thinking children’s books as real literature rather than as vessels for instruction, from picture books all the way to YA.
Moby: Are you seeing greater numbers of translators, young or old, working on Arabic literature? I know this has been one of the problems in bringing books across. Have you ever given translation a try yourself?
MLQ: There are definitely a greater number of translators working on Arabic literature, and a greater number who want to give it a try. Arabic literary translation is still young, and so one of the problems is knowing how to find a great translator for your project. There is a temptation to believe that just having your work “in English” is good enough, even if the English is rather dreadful.
Have I translated? I translated for food (yes, really) when I lived in Russia in the early 1990s, and I have translated and co-translated some Arabic literary texts. I suppose I must’ve translated some Spanish poetry when I was in school. At any rate, I am not at all satisfied with my efforts and the critic in me says: Please, fulfill your creative yearnings elsewhere.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House, and co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.