Welcome to a World of Literature

Everything you need to know about the world's great writers and emerging voices is being collected and shared on the English PEN Online World Atlas. Head over to the Atlas to create (or edit) a profile for your favourite author or book, leave a comment or contact another user, and discover your next great read. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life and change the world, one book at a time.

The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tradittore traduttore: Treacherous Translation & Backslang

Chad Post at three percent offers a lead to a post in US litblog Reading Ahead. Blogger Harold Augenbraum has been posting about US literary culture for about a year, and this post comes in response to a blogpost in the Guardian on 12 September entitled 'The new wave of French urban fiction.' The appositely-named Andrew Gallix offers an overview of what could be called banlieu fiction, explaining why it's so radical in France, particularly in its use of verlan (Arabic-influenced backslang) and also its desire and ability to bypass traditional publishing channels. He notes that:

Livres Hebdo points out that "More and more young authors don't want to be published by the big houses so are self-publishing via the internet". Antoine Dole has been instrumental in bringing them together and fostering a sense of community. In November 2006, this young writer produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased some of the "word activists" — rappers, slammers, bloggers — who were using blogs or social networking sites to bypass mainstream publishing. En attendant l'or soon became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for Les Décalés, a burgeoning literary movement which coalesced around Dole and Elsa Delachair.

Commenters on Gallix's post immediately raised the issue of translation: for example, GMcG commented,
Could be very interesting but will we ever see any of it translated into English? Given the comments regarding banlieue slang and pinches of Arabic it will probably be incomprehensible to even fluent non-native French speakers.

Reading Ahead makes a similar point, but with regards to the confines of the US market and its (in)ability to adapt/listen to macaronic texts. He points out, though, that writers like Junot Diaz have broadened not only ideas of literary form, but of literary languages as well, playing brilliantly and profoundly with what Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien has called Weird English. Her book celebrates the changes wrought in 'traditional' English (itself a hybrid language created by conquests, trade and empire) as its global dominance brings it into daily parlance for millions of non-native speakers.

Sarah Ardizzone, who has translated Faïza Guène's two seminal banlieu novels, Just Like Tomorrow and Dreams from the Endz, mixes up Algerian slang like "bled" with contemporary British street slang like "bare butters" to give a sense of Guène's fast-paced, punning, slurring sounds (or soundz). In her translation note, she thanks a number of British teenagers who advised her on current words, which raises another question: not only is the slang used in "immigrant fiction" in some cases specific to one community, but even to one (age or other) group within that community. Does that have to match up with the same group in the "target" language community? And what happens to the translation as that "target" group moves on?

Reading Ahead mentions cinema as a possible middleman, citing Stephen Frear's film of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (which as far as I remember has very little slang). Gallix mentions Matthieu Kassovitz' La Haine as a reference point for non-French (and perhaps non-banlieu) readers approaching the new French fiction - a great example as the film is about young people from different communities within the banlieu hanging and chatting together. But its cinematic language is more inventive and contemporary than its spoken language. Perhaps Danny Boyle's film of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting comes closer -- and that was screened with subtitles in the US.

A final thought: translation scholars such as Lawrence Venuti, arguing for what he calls an "ethics of difference," have suggested that one of the functions of translation is to preserve the challenging and generative encounter with unfamiliarity -- so rather than translation smoothing over difficulties of cultural exchange, it could work to foreground knotty points to bring them into thinking and discussion, rather than hiding them under the cover of familiarity and easy parallels.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Memory Online

A beautiful, meditative article by journalist and novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab (aka blogger qunfuz), about French Algerian culture, Chab Hasni, and rai. Written for the National, it pushes the blog towards the literary essay. Blogs are so often about the present moment -- new media offers a way to record, map and share the present in a way that is unprecedented -- so it's strange and wonderful to read such an extended memory-piece online.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Middle Muddle, or Garlic, Arabic and Definitions

A very funny, pointed blog post from rockslinga, aka novelist Randa Jarrar, about food, geography, conversation, and the limits of definitions, as a great garlic sauce gets her talking to a grocery store clerk about what, exactly, is the Middle East. It's interesting that garlic is the conversational motor, as geographical definitions relating to how and what people eat, cook or trade pre=date, and are perhaps more resonant, than top-down political definitions. Jarrar ends the post on a confident note that it starts in Morocco and ends in Iran - but as Turkish academic Sedat Laciner writes, the term has a difficult, colonial history, having been used internally by the India Office but first seen in print in 1902, in an article by Alfred Thayer Mahan about the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf. Mahan wouldn't have recognised Morocco as the western boundary as his concern was for the defense of the British Empire in India.

The geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries -- and the usefulness of the idea, both to external commentators and inhabitants -- of the Middle East is something that we've engaged in at PEN as the first stage of the Atlas developed: the countries represented are, inspired by the British Council's 2008 focus on New Arabic Books, delimited as the "Arabic-speaking world," which has slightly different borders from Jarrar's Middle East as it doesn't include Iran (which has a completely different linguistic and literary history). Would Jarrar include Comoros and Djibouti? And, as a Facebook Atlas fan asked, where does that leave writers from those countries who write in English, French, Hebrew, German, Kurdish, Berber, etc., whether living in the Arab world or abroad? Language usage, like cooking, doesn't map out a stable, shared Arab cultural history, whether meeting up with (and often suppressing) indigenous languages as it did from Morocco to Afghanistan, or where Arabic itself was suppressed either explicitly or implicitly under European colonial rule, so that (for example) Ahlam Mosteghanemi is the first Algerian woman writer to publish a novel in Arabic, inspired by the writer Malek Haddad, who wrote in Les Zéroes tournent on rond that:

"Même en s'exprimant en français, les écrivains algériens d'origine arabo-berbère traduise une pensée spécifiquement algérienne, une pensée qui aurait trouvé la plenitude de son expression si elle avait été vehiculée par un langage et une écriture arabes."

As Haddad's work itself shows, French (like English) is "un langage et une écriture arabes." For some writers, it is a case of -- as Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird entitled their anthology of contemporary Native women's writing from North America, Reinventing the Enemy's Language; sometimes it's about nationality or heritage, as for Lebanese-born French writer Andrée Chedid. In the case of Comoros, Arabic is the language of news publications, but Comorian and its local varieties are spoken, while the best-known Comorian writer, Soeuf Elbadawi, writes in French as part of a Francafrique heritage -- one in which French becomes African, as in the verlan, or banlieu backslang, used by young Algerian-French novelist Faïza Guène.

As with the Ali Baba garlic sauce that Jarrar loves, geographical and cultural attribution can be a fantasy; individual writers are shaped differently by different social, economic and cultural pressures to write in certain languages or dialects (for example, the tension between literary and colloquial Arabics in Egypt), to draw on (or repudiate) certain literary canons or models, to adopt or adapt another language in exile... What's exciting for me is how a writer turns any language into an idiolect, a language shaped by one imagination working over and through many histories, texts, conversations, just as every cook will create a slightly different dish from the same recipe.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Win a Sontag!

Not the fabulous wave of grey hair so distinctive that Saturday Night Live had a special "Sontag" wig just so (you canbuy your own clip-in "feminist hair wear" from Art Metropole), but the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation of $5000 (US). The 2009 competition has been announced, and excerpts from the 2008 winners are available on the website. It's open to anyone under the age of thirty, for a Spanish to English translation of their choosing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sherko Fatah

Sherko Fatah, an Iraqi Kurd who was born in the GDR and currently lives in Germany, has been nominated for the 2008 German Book Prize. Fatah has published three novels in German, including Im Grenzland (At the Borderline) -- Words Without Borders published an extract online, translated into English by Andrea Heyde. Qantara.de has a compelling review of the nominated new novel, Das dunkle Schiff (The Dark Ship), which tells the story of a reluctant jihadist who flees from Iraq to Germany. None of Fatah's novels have been published in English yet -- perhaps a win in the German Book Prize will lead a publisher to his work?

The Nobel Art of Blogging

Jose Saramago has started a blog. It's in Portuguese, so if you speak the language it looks like a great way to get the inside scoop on a Nobel Laureate's writing process, particularly as Fernando Mereilles' film adaptation of Saramago's Blindness is released.

Saramago will be welcomed to the litblogging community by writers Ghada Abdel Aal, Marwa Rakha, and Rajaa Alsanea, who are part of a new trend in the Middle East for gossip-girl novels based on blogs. These women writers have successfully used the internet as a forum in which to speak about the inner lives of Arabic women, to dispense advice about marriage, men and education, and have found a following for their work. Where Rakha is a sharp, secular critic, Alsanea writes about balancing halal behaviour and belief with the desire to be an emancipated, educated woman. All three point to the hypocrisies and double standards exploited by men in their societies -- but their powerful critiques are delicately layered inside what seems like Sex and the City fluff.

Perhaps these aren't novels that might win a Nobel prize for Literature, but can the time be far off when a blook wins one of the major literary awards?

Monday, September 22, 2008

We're Here, We're Queer, We're Writing Proud

Nash Suleiman at Global Voices Online has a great round-up of voices on homosexuality in Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking world. Suleiman draws attention to the Lebanese organisation Helem, but there are other groups, such as ASWAT, the organisation for Palestinian gay women, which has just published its first book -- you can read some the poems by members here. There have been a number of interesting books addressing this question, including Mai Ghoussoub's Imagined Masculinities, Brian Whitaker's Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, and Jarrod Hayes' Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb. Lebanese-Jordanian novelist and artist, Rabih Alameddine, now resident in the US, has written sensitively and sharply about the travails of being a gay man in the Arabic world, and an Arabic gay man in the US. Palestinian-Canadian poet Trish Salah has re-invented the ghazal form to explore her trans identity.

But, as Peter Cole and Maria Menocal among others have pointed out, there is a long heritage of male-identified love poetry by male writers in the Arabic lyric tradition. In an article on Arabic writers for the Guardian by Ahdaf Soueif, Alaa al-Aswany cites
Abu Nuwas, a gay poet who lived 1,000 years ago, is one of our greatest poets, yet he hasn't been translated, which adds to the assumption that Arab culture is homophobic
. Hala Halim of NYU mentions
Lebanese novelist Rashid al-Daif's 2006 Awdat al-Almani ila Rushdihi (The German Comes to His Senses) is a fictionalised memoir about the author's collaboration with a gay German writer, Joachim Helfer, through the East-West Divan exchange programme. Setting aside the controversy over the strategy adopted by the German writer in his published response, Al-Daif's memoir is to be lauded for the candour with which it reflects critically on homophobia in the Arab world.

Dar al Saqi published The Others, a novel by Siba Harez (a pseudonym to protect the author) that explores the life of a young lesbian in Saudi Arabia, which will be published in English by Telegram this year. As Suleiman points out while
the presence of homosexuality can be spotted in every country in the region, governments and societies are still intolerant to such life style.
Fiction and poetry have a substantial role to play in changing both grassroots and government opinions -- after all, only ten years ago it was illegal for teachers to talk about queer issues in schools in the UK.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Publishing is Dead. Long Live Publishing.

As John Walsh wrote this weekend in the Independent:

A transatlantic debate is currently raging about whether a decade of staring at computer screens, sending emails and text messages, and having our research needs serviced instantly by Google and Wikipedia, has taken a terrible toll on our attention, until our brains have been reconfigurated and can no longer adjust the tempo of our mental word-processing to let us read a book all the way through.

Over at Booksquare, blogger Kassia Krozer has a pointed analysis of the New York Magazine article that caused the internet vs. reading debate to blow up:

What is really meant by this, and what is really meant by this article is that a certain segment of the publishing industry is in jeopardy: literary (with a capital L) fiction. More specifically, literary fiction from New York publishers. Look at who is doing the hand-wringing, who is doing the worrying. If this is the end (and it’s not), then what, exactly, is ending?

This is where the New York Magazine piece misses the boat. It sees publishing through the eyes of the literary crowd, not the reading, writing, publishing crowd.

Reader-oriented news and review blogs like Booksquare, Bookninja, Bookslut, and lit-blogging metablog My Friend Amy… are becoming increasingly influential in readers' and publishers' decision-making -- the LibraryThing blog gets sent hundreds of pre-release books every month for the site's users to review.

As the publishing industry negotiates digital publishing and readership, with all its technical and copyright issues, it remains to be seen whether book blogs, the Kindle, Salt's revitalisation through an online store and digital magazine, and other innovations represent an accommodation between an older form that is struggling to retain its identity, or an emerging, shifting hybrid through which book publishing and the internet will change each other. Who could have predicted that Amazon, which started out as an online bookstore, would come to define online (and, for booksellers, offline) retail?

Walsh's article begins with the image of a reader at a café table making notes on the Hemingway novel that he is reading. Perhaps the Internet catches readers' attention most when it expands this function: Amazon reviews, virtual book groups, unlimited essay space courtesy of blogging software -- and an attentive community with which to share, hone and exchange insights. In a sense, the PEN Atlas acts like a Facebook for books -- or more specifically an OurSpace for readers, writers, publishers, bloggers, translators and browsers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Discoveries: Online vs. Real-World Browsing

Over the past few months, as the moderator on the English PEN Atlas, I've discovered a wealth of new titles by the power of Googling -- searching, following links, working through publishers' catalogues. But sometimes I need to go and smell the books and undertake some real-life Googling, or browsing as it was once known. A trip to the Toronto Women's Bookstore turned up two new names (new to me, anyway): Iqbal al-Qazwini and Sahar Khalifeh. al-Qazwini is an Iraqi-born freelance journalist now living in Berlin, and her first novel Zubaida's Window is the first Iraqi novel published in English to focus on the 2003 invasion. Khalifeh is a Naguib Mahfouz-medal winning Palestinian novelist and feminist, whose Wild Thorns is considered the classic chronicle of life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

If you follow the links of the Atlas, they could lead you to other Iraqi and Palestinian writers. Or you could try searching "occupation" to discover thematically-connected books. It's like a bookshop whose shelves are constantly re-arranging in different constellations (countries, authors, themes) -- but, as the trip to TWB reminded me, it's also a stage on a journey to the bookstore where you can find hard copies of the texts that have tempted you virtually. TWB has regional sections (Middle East, Pacific Asian, for example), which is unusual and means they carry a lot of books in translation and by writers in exile… Word Power in Edinburgh is another globally-focused, outward-looking store. Both see carrying literature in translation as a social, political and pedagogical responsibility -- as well as making for a rich literary culture.

What are your favourite bookstores for tracking down literature in translation? Do you order straight from the publishers (see the blog sidebar for some of the great publishers -- and let us know who we're missing)? Book fairs? Online specialist bookstores like the Spain-based Libreria Mundo Arabe? One of the thrills of being a reader is visiting bookstores as you travel -- as suggestions come in, I'll build a sidebar list of great bookshops as recommended by you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Welcome to the Blogging Revolution

Following the publication of a number of influential blooks from the Middle East, including those by Salam Pax and Riverbend, Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein has collected together interviews with bloggers based in repressive regimes in his book The Blogging Revolution, which he's been talking about on SBS Radio Arabic and in today's Guardian. He asserts that citizen journalism and new media publishing can literally change the world, by providing freedom of information from within countries where media is closely state-controlled, and can allow internet users around the world to make connections with one another.

With the Online World Atlas, PEN hopes to become part of that revolution -- not least because good-news stories like Loewenstein's are balanced by increasingly frequent site closures and arrests of bloggers such as Moroccan Mohammed Erraji. The blogging revolution - like all change - needs _you_: send us links to news stories, new publications, great blogs, good books and interesting discussions.

As Loewenstein points out, "Allowing people to speak and write for themselves without a western filter is one of the triumphs of blogging. The online culture, disorganised and disjointed in its aims, is unlike that of any previous social movement." Like international blog collector sites Global Voices and The Literary Saloon, or Syrian aggregator al-mudawen, the World Atlas blog collects some of the new voices being heard in this fertile landscape -- and we want you to add yours.
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