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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

City Lights

Greetings from San Francisco! In the latest of an irregular series on amazing bookshops, this post comes from (or rather, after a visit to) City Lights, the famous "Beat" bookstore opened in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Two years later, Ferlinghetti launched the "Pocket Poets" series and the City Lights imprint was born. Still radical after all these years, recent titles from City Lights include essays by Howard Zinn and Subcomandante Marcos, and also an impressive list of writing from the Middle East and North Africa. This month they're hosting a launch for Iraqi-American professor and artist Wafaa Bilal's memoir/manifesto Shoot an Iraqi. Browsing through the shelves, I also discovered I'jaam, the first novel by Iraqi poet and scholar Sinan Antoon and (in the poetry section, which takes up the entire top floor!) The World's Embrace, the first English translation of essential Moroccan radical poet Abdellatif Laâbi. If you can't make it to San Francisco, they have an excellent online store.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Denys Johnson-Davies on Arabic literature in translation

Literary Saloon links to a review of Modern Arabic Literature (Tresilian) in Al-Ahram by distinguished translator Johnson-Davies, which features some
mind-boggling numbers

Recently modern Arabic literature seems to have made several long strides all at once. It is interesting to note that in the 20 years from 1947 to 1967 a mere 20 titles from modern Arabic literature appeared in English translation. In the next 20 years the situation improved slightly with 84 titles being published in translation between 1967 and 1988. I do not have figures for the yearly number being published these days, but the position has greatly improved.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

And a challenge to freedom of speech in Liverpool...

Booksurfer has the details of raids and arrests on protest literature stalls on Liverpool's Church Street, and of a protest in response on Saturday 18th October.

Calling All Writers

Blogger Rebellious Arab Girl is calling for contributors to her new e-zine, Arabs from Generation X. She's seeking punchy articles on the following topics:
1. Growing up abroad as an Arab.
2. Media influence on Arabs abroad and back home.
3. New ideas that changed Arab’s view on society and the world.
4. Arab politics and it’s effect on generation X’s view point of the world.
5. Latest news from around the globe that effect Arabs.
6. Arabs' contribution to society and the world. (ie. science, technology, etc). Great place to write a profile of a colleague or friend who deserves recognition.
7. History, what have Arabs done that shaped the world?
8. Cartoons and art work by great Arab talent.
9. Humour.

Assistant editors and designers are also sought. Read the posts and contact Rebellious Arab Girl on rebelliousarabgirl (at) gmail.com.

Bertolt Brecht's FBI File

Censorship, American WWII style, from the PoetryPolitic blog.

New: Toot and Farafina 15

Two items of excitement today: a new Arabic blogging aggregator, Toot, with a focus on

intelligent, passionate, interesting, funny, knowledgeable and courageous people… using the web to make their voices heard.

They're featuring 181 blogs so far, in both Arabic and English, and readers can vote blogs on the site up and down to reflect "what's tooting." Bloggers are invited to submit their blogs for consideration.

Blogger Laila Lalami, perhaps one of the most-read litbloggers and/or Arab bloggers, flags up her guest-edited issue of Nigerian literary magazine Farafina, with a focus on "Remapping Africanness," as Moroccoan writer Anouar Majid titles his essay, to include North Africa. The issue includes an excerpt from Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men, a wonderful serial poem about the Nile by Coptic poet Matthew Shenoda, a report on Darfur by Fady Joudah (Mahmoud Darwish's translator) and an essay on Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih.

Farafina started as an online magazine in 2004, but since October 2005 has had a print issue as well. You can buy a single issue or subscription from the Kachifo webstore, which has a great selection of African books as well.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Found in Translation at Frankfurt

The New York Times is at Frankfurt -- and they have an excellent article about (the dearth of) literature in translation in the US, including soundbites from the University of Rochester's Chat W. Post, better known to this blog as "Three Percent." The article picks up on Horace Engdahl's controversial statement about US literary isolationism with coverage of independent US presses like Graywolf who are publishing books in translation, and a clear-sighted account of the difficulties and reward of finding, publishing and promoting literature in translation in the English-language market.

Life or Facebook?

There have been many apocalyptic articles bemoaning the death of sociality/literature/civilisation as we know it due to the advent of the internet, and particularly social networking. But what becomes clear when you spend any time on social networking sites (and I spend way too much time on Facebook) is that many of the groups are dedicated to promoting live events, and can reach an unprecedented audience of potential attendees. Just as Kutub's blog allows you to read along with a bookclub in Dubai, the Facebook groups for Jordan Poetry and Cairo's Diwan Bookstore give a picture of a thriving literary culture that's as much face-to-face as Facebook.

Authors are increasingly savvy about using the internet to reach new readers -- and to shape their reputation. Celebrated Egyptian blogger and writer Marwa Rakha used Facebook to encourage her readers to review her book on Amazon. It sounds like a virtual whirl, but net users are conscious of real-life consequences, whether positive (increased book sales or event attendance, improved transcultural communication) or negative. That one writer, Adnan Okter, could get an injunction to block the website of Turkey's third-largest newspaper demonstrates -- uncomfortably -- the real-life power of the virtual world.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Arabic Translation Initiative

Another great initiative announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair: The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation is to translate 50 selected Arabic books into foreign languages. The press release says that:

Books to be translated will include Al Sultan al-Ha'er (The Perplexed Sultan) by renowned Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakeem, The Mural of Mahmoud Darwish by famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Morals of the Muslim by leading Islamic thinker Muhammed Al-Ghazali.

The Foundation supports translation in both directions:

As part of its presence in the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Foundation will celebrate the first edition of the Arabic translation of three of German author Adolf Muschg's books at a workshop to be hosted tomorrow (17 October). During the event, Muschg will share his perspectives on the importance of translation as a vital tool for enhancing global understanding.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation will also organise a Book Presentation review that will feature Mohammed by Tilman Nagel. The event will mark the release of the first Arabic edition of the book prepared by Arab philosopher and translator Radwan Al Sayed.

More information will be available after the book fair on the Foundation's website.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing Launched

As Orhan Pamuk uses the Frankfurt Book Fair to denounce the Turkish government, Bloomsbury use it to announce a new publishing venture, working with the Qatar Foundation to help generate and support Qatari literature. Literary Saloon has the full report, with links to the Guardian and Gulf Times coverage.

Salt's Cyclone Blows in Author Blog Tours

Salt Publishing have come up with an eco-friendly, credit-non-crunching promotion scheme: Book Tours 2.0. Called Cyclone, it's a wily (and top secret 'til right now) project to create 'virtual book tours' that allow authors to reach out online to the phenomenal litblogging community, and brings Salt readers into that community. Authors Charles Lambert and Tania Hershman will be the first to take part in blog tours, dropping in on litbloggers for interviews, guest posts, and reader Q&As. Each writer will tour to specifically selected blogs, so Cyclone itself becomes a kind of aggregator, showcasing litblogs.

The Cyclone virtual tour offers writers an opportunity to connect with readers globally without air travel, a great model for smaller independent publishers looking to get their books and writers circulating internationally. It remains to be seen how Salt will solve the problem of book signing, a crucial component of any author meeting -- perhaps adopting Margaret Atwood's long-distance signing method, the LongPen?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reading Contemporary Arabic Literature: Where to Start?

Perhaps Alaa al-Aswany has whetted your appetite for fiction from the Middle East, or you're curious to read the stories written by the people seen in the news who rarely get to speak for themselves. Maybe you're planning a trip to Morocco (say, for the upcoming international Forum on Civilisations and Cultural Diversity) and want to know more about the country, or maybe you're just hungry for new voices, new reads. As the British Council's year-long New Arabic Books project shows, Arabic fiction publishing is thriving in the Middle East and Maghreb -- but where to start?

You could take advice from Kutub, a book club that's been running in Dubai for 2 1/2 years. Each month they gather at the Third Line gallery to discuss a juicy list of books. If you're looking for a tasty starter course in the diversity of Arab literature available in English, then here's Kutub's menu for October 2008:

Yalo by Elias Khoury
The New Year of the Revolutionary Bread Making Machine by Hassan Daoud
Adama by Turki al-Hamad
Woman at Point Zero (Imra’a ‘ind Nuqtat al-Sifr) Nawal As Sadaawi
The Last Chapter by Leila Abouzeid
Aunt Saffiya & the Monastery ( خالتي صفية والدير ) by Bahaa Taher
The Secret Life of Saaed the Pessoptomist by Emile Habiby
Black Magic by Hamdy el-Ghazzar
Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifa
Leaves of Narcissus (Awraq Al-Narjis) by Somaya Ramadan
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

All well-loved favourites on your shelf? Further recommendations available here. And some great reads from Boulder Public Library's long-runniing Arabic Literature Discussion Group.

Monday, October 13, 2008

And more campaigning writers... [Updated]

A link forwarded by Susan Schultz, poet, publisher, professor and Red Sox fan -- PoetryPolitic, a 50-day election run-up blog in poems by the Wave Books community of US poets, including the late Hayden Carruth (d. October 6, 2008).

Here are your "big dialogue" American writers, Mr. Engdahl (and commentators who focus on the Roth/Updike canon) -- non-parochial, experimental, resonant, collaborative, political, lyrical, outspoken. And tech-savvy: embedded and downloadable MP3s available for all the poems, and videos for some.

[Updated 13/10]

And, from the UK, 42 writers campaigning against the government's planned 42-day pre-charge detention, as part of Liberty's "Charge or Release" campaign. Organisers Hari Kunzru, Simon Prosser and Anya Serota comment:

It is a measure of the unpopularity of the proposed legislation that not a single writer declined to contribute on the grounds that they in fact supported it. Whereas 42 of the best novelists, essayists, memoirists, poets and journalists around sent us the uniquely powerful contributions you will read on this site.

Saif-Ghobash Banipal Prize in full

Susannah Tarbush, who blogs as the tanjara, has posted her Saudi Gazette article on the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize, with full details of the judges' citations for Fady Joudah's winning translation of Mahmoud Darwish's The Butterfly's Burden, his reading of "Not as a Foreign Tourist Does", and of the runner-up and highly-commended titles:

Ghassan Nasr was the runner-up with his translation of the late Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s last novel The Journals of Sarab Affan (Syracuse University Press). In the judges’ view: “As is to be expected with the writings of this poet-novelist, the Arabic text is couched in language of exquisite beauty, and Ghassan Nasr succeeds admirably in transferring the nuances of the original to an English version that is a pleasure to read.”

Nancy Roberts’ translation of Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr’s The Man from Bashmour (American University in Cairo Press) was highly commended. The jury was “deeply impressed by Bakr’s courageous novelistic exploration of Egypt’s complex relationship with its Christian (Coptic) community during the 9th century AD.” The text uses complex levels of discourse, “and the translation project has therefore been a significant challenge, one that has been met with great success by the translator.”

Describing Joudah's translation of Darwish, judge Roger Allen set a high bar for translators of poetry:

The English versions of the poems “replicate, deliberately so, the structures of the original poems that parallel them on the opposite page, and yet they can be read in their English forms as wonderful transfers of the images and music of the Arabic poems. It goes without saying that this is a major achievement.”

Elizabeth Bachner writes of the desire to engage in the "acrobatic" art of translation - as a writer and reader - when discussing Anne Carson's Grief Lessons, a translation of four Euripides plays. Her powerful description of the translation - kind of a whirlwind met on a knife-edge - applies to Joudah's meeting with Darwish as well.

If translation in any form is a beautiful, treacherous and radical art -- a bit like alchemy, or shape-shifting, or dancing, or dying, or writing poems -- then translating the classics is more beautiful, and more treacherous, and more radical. It’s a kind of epistemological time travel. You have to convey, wholly and purely, the writer’s way of expressing and understanding the world. You are thrust into a vortex of inexact equations and surreal paradoxes. In transforming someone’s words, you risk destroying them, turning them into a pile of babble or ashes or dust. I say this as someone who writes in only one language -- in the translation world, I am a limbless girl watching the ballet. It makes me weep. I can feel how to pirouette with my phantom limbs.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

We Are All Laila Day: October 19

Amira al Husseini at Global Voices reports on the development of a unique blogging community in Egypt. We Are All Laila [Ar] started in September 2006 as an online conversation between a few women who identified themselves as (and with) Laila, the protagonist of Latifa al-Zayyat's groundbreaking novel The Open Door. al-Zayyat, a leftwing campaigner and distinguished professor of literary studies at Ain-Shams University, wrote The Open Door (al-Bab al-Maftuh) in 1960. As Amal Amireh at al-Jadid notes, like the author's,

Layla’s psychological, social, and political growth takes place in the context of the years from 1946 to 1956 — years that witnessed the revolt against the British and the Palace, the Free Officer’s Revolution of 1952, Jamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the Israeli-British-French attack that followed.

Amireh continues:

The same novel is now “an impossibility,” al-Zayyat said a few years ago [in the mid 1990s]. When she wrote it she shared with her audience a common language and a common vision. But things have changed. According to her, “roads to salvation are blocked; the common ground of shared values seem to break down into multiple different sets of values according to the varied social strata; the common sensibility and its language is no more; people lacking national unity are divided and subdivided until each is turned into an insular island.” One Egyptian critic recently wrote that his female students don’t see themselves in the heroine of The Open Door. They no longer believe that what Layla achieves by the end of the book is possible for them.

Yet We Are All Laila demonstrates that, ten years later, Laila is once again a role model who offers shared values to a group of Egyptian women connected by the internet, which offers the opportunity for the reclamation and mobilisation of a "common language and a common vision."

On October 19 2008, the bloggers at We Are All Laila will be:

asking specific questions, carefully selected by a few friends, which concern the status of Egyptian girls and women, in particular, and Egyptians, in general. The objective is to develop a dialogue stemming from the responses to better understand ourselves and those around us.

Laila was the writer's dream: a character larger than her novel, who embodies the hopes and thoughts of a generation -- and now she is taking life and shape again from a new generation.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Le Clézio: A Campaigning Writer

In The Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis offers an interesting reading of Nobel winner Le Clézio's career, alluding to his transnational writing career and political and ecological concerns as pressing reasons for the award:

Le Clézio became popular in France in the 1970s and 80s with novels set across the world. His big breakthrough came in 1980 with Desert, an award-winning novel of French colonialism seen through the eyes of a Tuareg woman in the Sahara. Since 2000 he has focused on stories of childhood and post-colonialism, drawing on his own family stories.

The Nobel jury said Le Clézio "stood out as an ecologically engaged author", citing his novels Terra Amata, The Book of Flights, War and The Giants. They called him an "explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation".

His acceptance speech at the ceremony in December is likely to have a political slant. A defender of Creole writers who face problems getting published, he said yesterday he would use the speech to campaign for the promotion of young writers outside the metropolitan elite. He is also vocal about war, women's rights and child prostitution in the developing world.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Nobel Prize for Literature Announced

... and the winner is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. Much of his early work has been published in English, but more recent novels have not been translated so extensively -- and translations have shifted from Hamish Hamilton to American university presses. The Nobel citation mentions a recent book that I would love to read -- one for the Sontag translation prize, peut-etre?

Among Le Clézio’s most recent works are Ballaciner (2007), a deeply personal essay about the history of the art of film and the importance of film in the author’s life, from the hand-turned projectors of his childhood, the cult of cinéaste trends in his teens, to his adult forays into the art of film as developed in unfamiliar parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New Translation Blog

A great initiative from Booktrust a UK-based "independent national charity that encourages people of all ages and cultures to discover and enjoy reading." They've invited translator Daniel Hahn to blog about his experience as he translates José Eduardo Agualusa's Estação das Chuvas, the fourth novel by the Angolan writer that he has translated.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"You cannot stop writing": Interview with Alaa al-Aswany

The Egyptian author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago talks about his writing practice and offers advice to young writers in today's Guardian books blog.

Poets and Apostates

Complete Review posts at the Literary Saloon about a Jordanian poet accused of being an enemy of Islam, quoting an article in UAE's The National:

Last week, Jordan’s grand mufti, Noah Alqdah Samas, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, called [Islam] Samhan an enemy of religion for his poetry, some of which included lines comparing his loneliness to that of the prophet Yusuf in the Quran...

All this comes as something of a surprise to Samhan, whose book, In a Slim Shadow, published eight months ago, is a collection of his best work over the past decade. The ministry of culture even bought 50 copies.

As The National points out, Jordan is currently working through and working out its own cultural politics of freedom of expression, including King Abdullah II engaging in conversation with bloggers on the website of newspaper Al-Dustour. The charges have prompted discussion in Jordan's online community.

Also a supportive comment for Samhan from the ever-vigilant DhimmiWatch, an organisation dedicated to the curious project of promoting free speech, democracy and feminism (all buzzwords beloved of George W. Bush's administration as casui belli) by promoting the idea of a monolithic, extremist Islam as a, and the only, global threat to free-thinking writers. I look forward to their equally rousing defence of Naomi Wolf, who wrote recently in the Huffington Post about suffering similar threats and shadowy persecution (allegedly government-sponsored) in the US.

The National ends its article with pithy comments voicing the support for freedom of expression within Jordan, from newspaper editor Muwafak Malqawi and from Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, who

warned: “One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Storytellers & their titles

Novelist/translator/blogger Randa Jarrar has a generous and perspicacious review of The Hakawati for this month's issue of Words Without Borders, in the spirit of this generous and lovely novel by US-based Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine. And it makes a point that I haven't seen elsewhere and that has set me thinking:

I was struck initially by the book’s title, the Arabic word for “storyteller.” It seems to be the first time a novel has come out from a major press [in the US] with an Arabic title

True? False? Definitely worth noting. Any thoughts on novels with Arabic titles from major English-language presses? The one that springs to my mind is Minaret (derived from manara, lighthouse) by Leila Aboulela, published in the UK by Bloomsbury...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Writing Iraq

Thoughtful and articulate piece by Pankaj Mishra in Saturday's Guardian Review on new books about the US invasion of Iraq. Non-fiction books, that is, mainly by journalists. Mishra compares their output to the major, and more incriminatory/inflammatory, books published contemporaneous to the Vietnam war -- it would be interesting to take his argument further, and discuss the novels and poetry emerging from and about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One notable difference is that the major novels about Vietnam published in the US -- like Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried (and the almost 600 others listed in Sandra Wittman's 1989 bibliography Writing about Vietnam) -- were written by Americans, but writers such as the Iraqi journalist Iqbal al-Qazwini, are giving an alternative perspective. Just as blogs by Riverbend and Salam Pax offered much-needed insight (and balance) to mainstream reporting of the situation in Iraq, so books like al-Qazwini's Zubaida's Window, which is published in English by the Feminist Press at CUNY, are an immediate and important counterweight to what -- as Gregory Cowie points out in the NY Times books blog -- is complete silence from American novelists where the invasion of Iraq is concerned.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Presenting the Translation Awards

It was announced over a month ago, but on Tuesday night Fady Joudah received the Saif Ghobash - Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, for The Butterfly's Burden, a collection of three volumes of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish. Complete Review blogging at The Literary Saloon seemed shocked, or at the very least surprised, that it's available in a bilingual edition from Bloodaxe (UK) and Copper Canyon (US) -- editions praised by poet Alfred Corn in his behind-the-scenes account of the pre-award ceremony party in London, attended by Joudah, his parents (flown in from Tennessee) and a number of Arab writers.

The event brings another award, in the form of raising the profile of world literature in translation -- not least poetry, which accounted for five of the seven winners - and the work of translators in creating the "big dialogue." While the blogosphere got there first (The Literary Saloon again, who predicted a blog post by TLS editor Peter Stothard, who presented the awards), there were considered articles in Tuesday's Guardian and André Tahourdin's survey in the TLS.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pen still mightier

English PEN have issued a statement supporting Martin Rynja, publisher at Gibson Square, whose offices were firebombed this weekend, allegedly in connection with Rynja's decision to publish Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina. Authors Nadeem Aslam, Monica Ali and Hanif Kureishi have all lent their voices to support Rynja's decision.

With a new documentary about Grove Press editor (and regular defendant in obscenity trials) Barney Rosset, Obscene, due to be released, and Rosset himself about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in honor of his many contributions to American publishing, it's a stark and timely reminder that publishers and editors in the liberal West still struggle for free speech, while their counterparts elsewhere in the world -- like Muhammad al-Sharkawi, blogger and founder of the Malamih publishing house in Cairo -- are subject to detention and state-sponsored brutality.

Nobel Odds & "the big dialogue of literature"

Ladbroke's have Syrian poet Adonis, a stalwart Nobel contender, at 4/1 (second shortest odds) and Algerian novelist Assia Djebar at 25/1. (Words Without Borders offer links to English translations from the "usual suspects"). No mention of Mahmoud Darwish but I hope that he is under discussion in the Secret Nobel HQ in Sweden, for his contribution to Peace as well as Literature. Were I a betting person, I would have a perverse and quixotic flutter on mind-bending Danish poet Inger Christensen, whose It is one of my finds of the year. And a differently perverse flutter (at 150/1) on Bob Dylan.

Nobel committee permanent chair Horace Engdahl said in an interview today that he Nobel committee sees US literature as "too insular." In Particular:

"They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

While publishers and editors have rushed to defend the wide scope of US literature and the many generations of immigrant writers who have contributed to it, but so far have made no riposte to the challenge on translation. Three Percent, a US blogger who agrees with Engdahl's assessment, noted back in February that, although there's some conflicting information out there, the statistics on original translations of fiction and poetry from languages other than English in the US are pretty weak, hovering at around 3% of all books published, hence the title of the blog.

The UK doesn't rate much better, and when it comes to the breadth of contemporary Arabic literature, according to a 2007 conference paper on Maghrebi fiction in English (download PDF here),

Salih Altoma notes that of the 322 translations of works of fiction from Arabic into English since the end of the Second World War, nearly two-thirds have been published since 1988... Furthermore, works selected fortranslation from the Arabic are overwhelmingly by Egyptian writers (170 out of the 322 recorded by Altoma).

As Pickford continues, the landscape is changing slowly:

a few dedicated publishers – principally Quartet, Saqi, University of Texas Press, and AUC Press – have an ongoing commitment to building up a collection of Arabic-language literature… a number of the publishers are based in the Arab world itself. This reflects a laudable effort on the part of local publishers, who recognise that if their counterparts in the West do not show an interest, it is up to them to challenge this cultural marginalisation and seek out a Western readership.

Initiatives such as the British Council's New Arabic Books and the PEN Atlas hope to change things further still, so the rate of translation for Maghrebi books is more that one every 2.5 years. Assia Djebar's name on the Nobel odds list from Ladbrokes is a positive sign - and a challenge to explore the region's writers further.
Add to Technorati Favorites MetaxuCafe