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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Best of the Year?

'Tis the season for best-of round-ups: the Literary Saloon have flagged up UK, US, French and German broadsheet lists, of which the most influential (in terms of sales, at least) is probably the New York Times' Holiday Books selection.

Which gave me pause. Remember that debate, earlier this year, about Horace Engdahl's comment that American literature was insular? Well, here are the books in translation on the NYT list, from established favourites Ma Jian, Victor Pelevin, and Roberto Bolaño: Beijing Coma; The Sacred Book of the Werewolf; 2666; Oh, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Good to see that international tensions, fervours, disasters and achievements can all be so neatly summed up by American authors, for the most part the usual suspects (Proulx, Roth, Updike). Non-fiction fares even worse, in a sense, when it comes to opening eyes to the greater world: there are books _about_, say the Middle East, like Robin Wright's Dreams and Shadows and Dexter Filkins' The Forever War , but everything on the list is by American and British writers.

The Guardian's list, which asks authors for their selections, fares little better; but Ahdaf Soueif flags up Raja Shehada's brilliant Palestinian Walks and Chimananda Ngozi Adichie cheers for Rawi Hage's IMPAC-winning De Niro's Game, which is also the only YA book to make the list.

But, they do also have a review of The Earth in the Attic, the first poetry collection from Fady Joudah, who won the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation earlier this year, for his translation of The Butterfly's Burden, a collection of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's late work. Joudah is the first Arab-American to win the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets award (he was selected by Louise Glück in 2007), which has been running since 1919. In his review of The Earth, Charles Bainbridge writes that:
Joudah's poetry thrives on dramatic shifts in perspective, on continually challenging received notions.
This suggests the deep influence of Darwish's fluent imagination, and also an implicit manifesto for literature -- and for review pages -- in complex and interconnected times.

In other words, come on, NYT, time for a dramatic shift of perspective -- say, to contemplating books written in places other than New York -- in order to challenge received notions.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Reading Egypt

The Guardian's Book Blog are travelling around the world via literature, and it's Egypt's turn. Post your suggestions and thoughts here. You can add new discoveries to the Atlas here.

[Updated 2 Dec]

the tanjara posts about the Guardian's literary tourism (aren't we loving the photo of the very contemporary Pyramids?) with some pertinent observations and questions about how the Guardian's tour functions:
So far, the blog entry on Egypt has attracted only 17 comments (some of which weren't on Egyptian literature, but suggested a next stop on the 'tour'), much fewer than the 45 for Portugal, the previous stop, Nigeria (42), Australia (116 comments), Ireland (213). Of course it's not really appropiate to compare interest, as indicated by comments, in relatively newly available Egyptian fiction with that in literature from Anglophone countries.
Egypt was chosen as a destination by readers of the blog, but there was a miniscule number of votes. It got 2 votes, tied with the same number for a combined destination of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. As Egypt had been shortlisted a few times previously it was the final choice. Surely Moroccan literature (including poetry) is 'present' enough to merit inclusion in its own right rather than only as part of a general Maghreb entry. Or, if one insists on a general North African entry, why not expand to include Libya

So there's lots of space to make your opinion heard (unusual on a Guardian blog!) and put the names of classics and exciting new novels out there... Great to see Bahaa Taher getting attention alongside Naguib Mahfouz, and also Khalid al-Khamissy.

If you're lucky enough to be in Cairo, Kamal Rohaym is reading from his novel "Ayam al-shataat" on Wednesday 8th December at the last Sphinx Agency salon of the year. Rohaym won a prize for the first novel, "Quloub munhaka" (The Muslim Jew), which is being translating into German at the moment. The next big thing?!


… to the winners of the ArtVenture prizes, awarded last night in London: the Freedom to Create Prize was awarded to Zimbabwean playwright Cont Mhlanga, a fierce critic of the Mugabe regime (who was unable to leave Zimbabwe to attend the ceremony), while the prize for an Imprisoned Activist went to Zargana, a Burmese comedian and activist who was arrested on the evening of 4 June 2008 after leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis which struck on 2 May 2008. English PEN reports that on 21 November 2008 he was handed a harsh 45-year sentence in response to h
is outspoken criticism of the government's slow response to the cyclone, and his opposition activities.

… to Laila Lalami, picked as one of the Top 10 litblogs at blogs.com

… to Queen Rania of Jordan, who won YouTube's first ever Visionary Award, for her videostream dedicated to combatting damaging stereotypes and misperceptions of Arabs and the Middle East (Global Voices collects tributes from the blogosphere here)

… to Lawrence Venuti, who Words Without Borders report is the winner of this year's Robert Fagles Translation Prize

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Freedom to Blog?

Siobhain Butterworth, the Guardian Readers' Editor, had a comment piece in the paper on Monday about the Free Speech and the Internet conference that took place at Cumberland Lodge last week. English PEN director Jonathan Heawood summed up his experience of the conference as part of the Guardian's multi-authored blog on on the issue. Heawood concludes that he:
came away from the conference convinced that we need to strengthen the international human rights framework if we are to realise the internet's capacity for freedom of speech. For this reason I believe we need an international treaty on the internet – not to encourage censorship, but to underwrite freedom of speech. One contributor to the conference suggested that the internet has "globalised the First Amendment".

Unfortunately, this simply isn't true for bloggers in Iran, Egypt, China and elsewhere who have been imprisoned for expressing their views or transmitting information online. Nor is it true for those of us whose searches are blocked, whose downloads are monitored, and whose postings are subject to "take-down" notices without any right of reply.
He points out that even in the UK and US, where democracy and freedom of speech are supposedly universal rights,
National legislators are struggling to keep up. Where they do create laws on the internet, they often do so badly, or without regard to the consequences. Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 creates an offence out of downloading material which might be useful to a terrorist. It led to the detention of a junior academic at Nottingham University who was legitimately researching terrorism.
The case brought home to (perhaps complacent) UK internet users the extent to which their web use (even on a personal computer, from home) is monitored, for political as well as commercial reasons.

It's a reality that bloggers in the Middle East and China face far more explicitly -- but the internet also gives them a way not only to speak out against censorship, blocking, take-downs, and arrests, but to be heard globally. Global Voices today has statistics on internet use in Egypt from Bloggers Times [Ar], showing (unbelievably) that
the number of internet users in Egypt increased from 650,000 users in 2000 to 9,170,000 users in 2008.
Marwa Rakha, who translates the blog, notes that
One in every three people in the sample [of 1,338 Egyptians 18-35] has a blog.
and that 89% of them are in favour of an internet censorship law, details unspecified.

There's a contrasting view from blogger Khalid in Bahrain, who writes (in Amira Al-Husseini's translation) hopefully that in the blogosphere:
Writing has become without limits, or outside the scope of being limited
. Like Heawood, he believes that
writing today needs a code of conduct, and what is this code? Who will write it? Who will approve it? The government, or the people, or the writers, or the intellectuals, or the clergymen? There will continue to be writings, and these writings will remain outside the restrictions.

Monday, November 24, 2008


translate is a (relatively) new and very intense academic project on translation organised by the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, with a website bursting with resources (often, fittingly, translated into multiple languages). They describe the entity as a
transnational multi-year research project translate aims at exploring the political articulation of the notion of cultural translation in artistic practices as well as in political social movements through a number of arts and exhibition projects, discursive events and networking practices from 2005 to 2008.

They've picked up on a resonant fact: "translation" has developed currency -- and cachet -- as a metaphor for intercultural conversation, as well as the process of thinking between languages. (It's worth noting, and thinking about, the cool translation fact that the word translation, from the Latin trans-fero, to carry across, is an exact translation for metaphor, from the Greek metapherein).

What exactly is being ferried back and forth between cultures when translation occurs? That's what the project explores, through
four thematic strands: critique of culturalisation, processes of social recomposition, beyond postcolonialism: the production of the global common, practices of multilinguality vs. national language-policies.
It may all sound a bit academic, but these are burning questions, in light of -- for example -- UK Immigration minister Phil Woolas' comments
about translation services in Oldham. "We had been spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money translating into foreign languages in the belief that we were helping migrants. It was not helping them; in fact it was ghettoising them and it was perpetuating racism against them." He accepts legal and health translation services are essential but gives the example of a school with a notice saying "welcome" in 20 languages. "The intention is to be welcoming and inclusive. The impact of it is first of all to ghettoise people and secondly to perpetuate racialism. In this country we've got things the wrong way round."

Is Woolas right or wrong? That's at the heart of _translate_: the ways in which both cultural and verbal translation (and the ways that they are inextricably entwined) affect all of us in basic and immediate (as well as complex and abstract) ways.

Girls of Riyadh Go to Dublin & Samir El-Youssef in Belgium

Susannah Tarbush reports in the Saudi Gazette that Rajaa Alsanea's The Girls of Riyadh has been longlisted for the Dublin/IMPAC award for fiction, which was won last year by Canadian-based Lebanese writer Rawi Hage's YA novel De Niro's Game. Tarbush notes that, along with Alaa Al-Aswany, Alsanea and Hage
have broken through into the Western literary mainstream, which has been a stimulus for Arab literature. Publishers are increasingly interested in publishing translations of Arabic writing, and are on the lookout for new Arab authors who may have mass readership appeal.

She also flags up Saqi's publication of David Tresilian's A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature; her discussion of the book suggests some of the tensions between the EuroWestern emphasis on mass market popular publishing and the current practice and status of literature in the Arabic world, according to Tresilian, who sees:
three main trends on the contemporary Arab literary scene: a weariness with politics, a growth in the number of women writers, and a related emphasis on individual experience at the expense of larger public themes. A further development has been regional writing, as exemplified by Nubian writers and by the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni whose novels are set among the Tuareg people.

Recently there has been a turning away from European literary models and towards elements from the pre-modern literary heritage and from the oral and popular culture. But ominously there has also been a growing intolerance of literary expression generally, “which has made what was always perhaps a minority activity into one that is now that of a sometimes embattled minority.”

Alsanea's novel, however, points to a fourth trend that mediates between what Tresilian perceives as a turning away from literature as popular expression: as a novel based on, and presented like, an email listserv, Girls of Riyadh is one of a growing number of novels (like Being Abbas El-Abd and The Poison Tree that use the popularity of new media communications as a form and forum for fiction, resulting in popular - and in all three cases, taboo- and genre-busting - novels with both regional and international presence.

Evidence: the IMPAC nomination for Alsanea's novel came, according to Tarbush, from a librarian in Warsaw.

And Tarbush is spot-on in drawing attention to the raised international profile of Arabic literature, although some authors pursue a different tack from Alsanea's gossipy, technologically-astute take on Sex and the City, which explores gendered double standards of life in Saudi Arabia, but also implies a gradual change (seconded, as the NYT reports, by the appearance of the first female Saudi rock band, The Accolade). Over at Words Without Borders, Arnon Grunberg catches London-based Lebanese author Samir El-Youssef in a humorous mood in Antwerp. El-Youssef's second novel A Treaty of Love is bleakly romantic, but in Antwerp he proves adept at turning his mordant view of life to stand-up (or rather, sit-down comedy).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Aunt Lute Brings Together Arab-American Women Writers

Over at Body on the Line, Marci Newman flags up the new Aunt Lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers, edited by her friend and mentor, which allowed her to suggest, successfully the inclusion
of several Arab American writers: Etel Adnan, Diana Abu-Jaber, Elmaz Abinader, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mohja Kahf, Nathalie Handal, and Suheir Hammad.

The anthology is worth celebrating for many reasons: it draws attention to what Mohja Kahf, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, points out is
a growing body of Muslim American literature [that] has reached the critical mass where it might be considered its own genre, including works like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” and a current best seller, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid.
The anthology also shows how widely that corpus ranges, across biography and memoir, popular fiction, experimental writing, essays, lyric poetry and spoken word.

And it's very welcome to see that Aunt Lute, a non-profit feminist press committed to publishing women of colour, is still making waves -- and they can ship direct to you internationally from their online store, one example of the amazing impact that the internet has had for small publishers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Rock, a Tree, a Cloud

© Rimi Garbua, "Following the Home," Jaffa Photography Project.

In Carson McCullers' short story of that title, a young girl learns the practice of love: before she can have a pet, she has to bend her emotions and attention to "a rock, a tree, a cloud." In a sense, there is a cultural equivalent: by learning to love a novel, a photograph, a film, even a blog, the reader/viewer can be moved to embrace the detail and magnitude of a person or of a people.

What prompted this wave of humanist fervour? Three online discoveries: a blog, a manifesto and (best of all) a photography exhibition. First up, the Body on the Line blog by radical writer and activist Marcy Newman, which is not only eloquently written, impassioned, thoughtful and intensive, but has one of the most comprehensive Links sections I have ever come across, which led me to discover young Palestinian-American activists and writers like Remi Kanazi, who created Poetic Injustice and poet Suheir Hammad, as well as Mizna, a fantastic journal of Arab-American literature.

As for the manifesto, it could speak directly to and for the creative and political work done by Marci and many of the writers and artists on her links list. Written by cultural researcher/artist Brian Holmes, the Affectivist Manifesto is the culmination of the "Continental Drift" geopoetics seminar and loosely a response to the Yes Men's prankster issue of the New York Times. Responding to the way that art practices have changed, and wondering what it is art can do (and does do) in the face of globalisation and cultural imperialism, Holmes notes:
What we look for in art today is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence.

He discusses the scales of art and of aesthetic experience: from the "thin layer" of the global network, to shared local knowledge, down to
the scale of intimacy, of skin, of shared heartbeats and feelings, the scale that goes from families and lovers to people embracing on a street corner or chatting in a sauna or a cafe. It would seem that intimacy, in our time, is weighted down, burdened with data and surveillance and seduction, crushed with the determining influence of all the other scales. But intimacy is still an unpredictable force, a space of gestation and therefore a wellspring of gesture, the biological spring from which affect drinks.

So I want to end with an event characterised by the "interplay of scales qualifying each other." Following the Home is an exhibition of photographs by six young women, from underprivileged Arab and Mizrahi Jewish communities in Jaffa, who participated in the Jaffa Photography Project developed and facilitated by Leila Segal, who has charted the process of the project on her blog The Other Side. The exhibition opened in Jaffa in May this year, and is currently on show at Rosie's Cafe in Brixton (which has delicious olive oil & almond cookies).

But back to the "interplay of scales": many of the photographs in the exhibition are intimate. They show the young photographers' families, their neighbourhoods, their friends, their houses. But they also speak of a political urgency that is immediate and intimate: there are photos of demonstrators being arrested, of political graffiti, of crumbling buildings: local, everyday details that register as intimate and local -- but also global. These moving photographs, each accompanied by a story, compress a great weight of feeling (as in Leila's post about Rimi's photographs) but they also expand outwards and outwards: through local politics of class in Jaffa, to national politics of oppression in Israel and Palestine, to the global crises of war and poverty.

The tiny details in these photographs speak out about global power, and about intimacy as a (the only? the most powerful?) resistance to it. In the love with which they are taken -- and often, the love in the eyes of those accepting the camera's gaze -- these photographs are profoundly affecting, as portraits, which unfold intimate landscapes, which in turn unfold intersecting stories, epic in scope, where what often passes us by as ticker-tape on the news channel is present and alive in every pixel of the image. They show a rock, a tree, a cloud, a grandmother, the whole world.

Updated 1 December 2008:

You can read (and hear) more about the project and about Sama's visit to London on Leila's blog. I was privileged to hear Sama read some of her work and see the photographs -- and listen in on some of the conversations they inspired. Sama said that what had affected her most about the project was the opportunity not only to listen, and to speak out, but to be heard, to feel that people - even and especially people who didn't share her background - who was willing to listen to her stories.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Goes Best with a Great Book... Chocolate!

If you like to bliss out on healthy amino acids, known to improve cognitive function, while reading, then take your pick from two theobromic initiatives from the Arab world: Al Nassma (which means 'desert breeze') Camel Milk chocolate! Yes, there are camel-shaped chocolates available. The blogosphere is intrigued -- see what jazarah, trendhunter, pragmaticideas, and grapeshisha have to say.

Alternately, Lebanese chocolatiers Patchi offer you... the world's most expensive box of chocolates, selling at Harrods for £5000 a box.
Designers at Patchi began with the box itself, a beautiful, leather-wrapped cover that is hand-embroidered with high-quality silk from India and China. This is only the beginning, however.

Upon opening the box, the chocolate connoisseur will find 49 hand-wrapped chocolates ensconced in soft suede leather, separated by gold and platinum linings. In case that isn't enough, each chocolate is adorned with either a 24-carat gold flower and Swarovsky crystal or a handcrafted, miniature silk rose.
Lebanese bloggers LM and Lebanese Inner Circle have the story, while Candy Addict, Pure Mocha Latte, and Suzanne's Files offer all-important reviews of the Patchi taste sensation.

Freedom of Expression: Covering All the Angles

Egyptian novelist and blogger Marwa Rakha has posted an English translation of fellow Egyptian blogger Hanan El Sherif's discussion of blog censorship and online community at Global Voices. It's a fascinating angle, from the blogger community, on the rights and responsibilities being discussed by policy-makers, editors, lawyers and journalists at PEN's conference this week.

The online community, particularly in Iran and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, is very reflective and supportive, with bloggers openly discussing government censorship and persecution of other bloggers, with an emphasis on "strength in numbers" speaking up and campaigning for the release of bloggers, for freedom of speech. Bloggers are quick to draw attention to the censorship or blocking of particular sites. It acts as a powerful argument for online *community* and that community's ability to set its own boundaries (distinguishing, for example, defamation from valid comment) and to defend its members.

Journalists have faced this kind of censorship and intimidation for years, and have developed a number of organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) to collect information, such as the number of reporters killed on the job (up 244% between 2002-2007), to make headlines and provide a unified front.

Perhaps bloggers need a grassroots-generated focal point for drawing up online behaviour charters and for rallying to bloggers' defense -- something along the lines of OnlinePEN, or a union (something freelance writers in North America have been working towards for decades) or CARA, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, which has just announced its 2008 conference. Between 3rd and 5th December, attendees will learn about CARA's history, present and future, and about current issues affecting refugee academics finding work and publishing.

They are currently focusing on the plight of Iraqi academics, and are fundraising for two dedicated fellowship schemes via an emergency appeal for Iraqi academics, shadowed by a chilling list of Iraqi academics assassinated in the five years since the invasion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alive! Blogging and the Resurrection of the Author

Susannah Tarbush reviews Robin Yassin-Kassab's The Road to Damascus, and draws on the author's 'qunfuz' blog - and specifically a recent post about his wife's decision to wear the hijab - to draw parallels between the author and his main character. The article appeared in an edited version in Observer Woman magazine (and on the Guardian website) on November 02, 2008.

It's a small detail, perhaps -- a reviewer linking a perhaps common thought about a book (that it's timely, contemporary, that the author knows whereof he speaks) to a piece of the author's non-fiction autobiographical writing. But it's also a giant leap: a return to the idea of the living author, whose bodily, historical presence and experience might just have something to do with his or her writing. It's a thought that hardly comes as a shock to most readers -- after all, there are author bios on the flap of every book (and sometimes extended interviews and reading guides, often with biographical information, included at the end of the book), many authors also practice a lucrative sideline in op-ed or cultural journalism, and some are even gossiped-about celebrities (and some celebrities have become authors).

But the academy pronounced the author dead in the 1960s -- a profoundly liberating move for critical reading, releasing the critic from the burden of deciphering (the only possible) meaning as intended by the author. But as many feminist theorists have pointed out, that revelation happened at exactly the moment that people were starting to look critically at exactly who got to be an author, and realising that it was mainly white, upper- and middle-class, middle-aged men. As the end of colonialism, the spread of education, and new technological revolutions in publishing made the act of writing more available to the silent majority, untold stories both global and local began to translate -- for the first time -- into print, often closely hewn from the author's experience of a life that had not been described in fiction.

The internet has made publishing and storytelling even more immediate, with the proliferation of blogs (check out toot for a bewildering and wonderful range of Arabic blogging voices, and Anthony Loewenstein's excellent book The Blogging Revolution for an introduction to further voices, and a serious consideration of what this explosion in communications means for goverment, media and global culture). As well as increasing the number of voices, the internet increases the speed with which they can speak up, and with which readers can access them. In the past, readers might have waited much longer for a memoiristic piece by Yassin-Kassab that allowed them to make an incidental, but profound, connection between the events of his life while he was writing and the events of the novel he wrote.

On her blog the tanjara, starbush (who also reports on lots of author events where living, breathing authors meet their readers) is recognising what readers have always known: the author is palpably alive in the text. That doesn't mean we have to read the book as the writer wants us to, or read only for the things the writer tells us about him- or herself -- but it allows us to connect the book -- politically, emotionally, culturally -- to the moment in which we, too, are alive. It personalises the process of creating fiction, drawing us to look at our world, to think differently about aspects we may take for granted -- to think *inventively* about them, about their stories -- and that's part of the excitement (as well as political value and social justice, according to a recent University of Manchester/LSE study that showed novels can best communicate global dilemmas such as poverty) of reading fiction.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No Frontiers? Free Speech and the Internet conference

Describing itself as
A conference for bloggers, policy makers, human rights activists, internet moguls, educationalists, and parents
, this three-day event (no horse-riding, though) kicks off tomorrow at Cumberland Lodge conference centre in Surrey, UK. It's presented in association with the 21st Century Trust and English PEN and has a sterling line-up of speakers, including pioneering online journalist Isobel Hilton, Index on Censorship editor Jo Glanville, and Guardian Readers' Editor Siobhan Butterworth. As well as discussions and presentations, there are opportunities for in-depth conversations at meals -- or while walking in Windsor Great Park.

Monday, November 17, 2008

2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction announced

Thanks to Three Percent for the tip-off about this prize. And the longlist:

16 books (not widely available in UAE bookstores, according to The Nation) were chosen from 121 eligible entries.

Of these, only two of the authors (ibrahims Al-Koni and Nasrallah) have had book-length works translated into English. Several others - Ali Bader, Inaam Kachachi, Rabih Jaber, Habib Selmi - have had stories, excerpts and poems translated into English in Banipal magazine (back issues available). Bookbrunch (who also helpfully lists the Arabic publishers of all the titles) notes that
the 2008 winner, Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher, is being translated into English (with funding by Sigrid Rausing) by Humphrey Davies, and will be published by Sceptre in summer 2009.

The Bottle and the Genie, Mohammad Abu Maatouk
The Tobacco Guard, Ali Badr (review here)
Hunger, Mohammad Al Bsati
The Unfaithful Translator, Fawaz Haddad
The Man From Andalucia, Salem Hameesh
Prayer For The Family, Renée Hayek
Confessions, Rabih Jaber
Platoon Of Ruin, Abdel Kareem Jouaitly
The American Granddaughter, Inaam Kachachi
The Tumour, Ibrahim Al Koni
Black Taste, Black Odour, Ali Al Muqri
Time Of White Horses, Ibrahim Nasrallah
The Scents Of Marie-Claire, Al Habib Salmi
Intensive Care, Izzedin Shukri
Ma’ Al Sama’, Yehya Yekhlef
Beelzebub, Yussef Zeydan

The winner will be announced at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair on March 6, 2009.

Poetry in Translation: An Event, a Boxset, and Essential Information for Literary Translators

Exiled Writers Ink, a London-based group that "aims to facilitate the wider dissemination of work by writers in exile and to ensure they have a platform…to give a high profile to translators who enable the work of exiled writers to become accessible… and to develop literary creativity in the broadest sense within the refugee communities" will be focusing on the Near East for the December installation of their monthly Poetry Café salon. The Near East: Jew and Kurd brings together musicians and writers, including Moris Farhi (a former chair of English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee), Nazand Begikhani, and Kamal Mirawdeli. And there are open-mic slots after the featured performers, so dust off your poems and join in!

The Poetry Translation Centre is celebrating its amazing 2008 World Poetry tour with an innovative boxset of ten dual-language chapbooks, collecting work by the poets from the tour with facing-page translations by leading British poets collaborating with translators. The boxset can be ordered by emailing the Centre, and each chapbook is available singly from co-publishers Enitharmon, whose extensive catalogue of poetry is both lyrical and beautiful.

Fantastic sample poems are appearing on the Centre's homepage. It being autumn in London, I'm particularly drawn to this one, "Small Fox," by Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, translated by Sabry Hafez and Sarah Maguire:

Suddenly - a small fox, playful,
floods your wounded heart with joy
He searches your face with his singular gaze,
knows you're at one with his vagabond stance

That very night I longed for you,
I missed your exquisite arousal,
I yearned for the moon that knew our names
That shattered glass forgotten,
the skittish squirrel gone -
leaving us everything: night, and wine

And as for me - I am drunk with thirst,
I am shaking with desire for you -
but here there's not a fox to be found.

The site also hosts the poem in Arabic, audio recordings in Arabic and English, and more poems by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi. It also lets you trace the translation process, with a literal version of each poem and the 'worked-up' version by the poet collaborating with the translator. If you're interested in translating poetry, the site has a wealth of material, including recordings of lectures and workshops.

English PEN has been running a Writers in Translation program for several years, and the committee are frequently asked for information on becoming a literary translator (primarily fiction and non-fiction), presses who publish translation, and how to approach them. Here, we're making their tried-and-tested guidelines public for the first time. The Literature Department of the Arts Council of England also have a very useful and detailed list of UK publishers who publish work in translation. So if this blog has inspired you to bring the work of a favourite author into English publication, these are the tools you need!

Two from the Saloon on Contemporary Arabic Literature

The Literary Saloon has two -- perhaps contradictory -- offerings: an op-ed from UAE's The National bemoaning the lack of a coherent "culture of reading" in the Middle East, pointing out that top-down efforts are not connecting to actual readers:
The Emirates Foundation has launched the International Prize for Arabic Fiction as a way for Arab writers and Arab literature to gain exposure. But as The National on Saturday reported, most of the 16 titles nominated for the award cannot be found in Abu Dhabi bookshops.

But they've also put up a review of David Tresilian's very handy A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature, which focuses on fiction where
the contemporary scene now offers almost too much to choose from [...] Tresilian's discussion of works such as Miral al-Tahawy's Blue Aubergine and Ahmed Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd, as well as Alaa Al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building, Chicago) brings things up to date fairly well.

It's true, as the Tresilian review points out, that
prose narratives, more or less modeled on the Western novel, … tend to get translated and attract the most attention among English-speaking readers
but the international outpouring of love and grief after the death of Mahmoud Darwish suggests some recognition of the traditional depth and ongoing significance and brilliance of poetry as a communitarian, national, personal, and political arena across the Arabic-speaking world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Map of Love: Book Club and Author Event

The Guardian Book Club takes on Ahdaf Soueif's wonderful, award-winning novel over the next four weeks, with essay one, on languages in the novel, appearing today. The Book Club's chair, John Mullan, will host an event with Soueif on November 25th at the Guardian Newsroom in London: tickets available from book [dot] club [at] guardian [dot] co [dot] uk, or on 020 7886 9281.

The PEN Atlas is looking to start an online book club -- nominate your choice of titles here!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

PEN Atlas on the tanjara

Journalist Susannah Tarbush, who blogs at the tanjara, gives a shout-out to the Atlas on her blog, saying that
the site clearly has the makings of a valuable online community and resource base on Arab literature
and the blog
is gathering momentum as a useful source of news, views and links relating to Arab literature.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chicago's King of the Castle

The Complete Review have just put up a piece on Cell Block Five (although the Arabic title is The Fifth Castle - a Philip K. Dick reference?), a Kafka-esque prison novel first published in English this year by Arabia. It's a novel by the distinguished Iraqi novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi, a member of the controversial 'Kirkuk Group' of radical poets in the 1960s, and founder of Shi'r poetry magazine. He left Iraq in the 1970s (shortly after writing the novel) and has since lived in Germany. A novel about a neutral, unbreakable hero who finds himself trapped in the labyrinthine twists of Iraqi politics, it sounds like potential bedside reading for President-Elect Barack Obama.

And for a strong sense of the contemporary urban Middle East, he could delve into Al-Ahram's round-up of novels about contemporary Cairo. He may, of course, be familiar with the most recent -- Alaa al-Aswany's Chicago, named for the city where Obama began his political career and where he accepted the presidency last night. A lucky co-incidence, maybe, but we hope it's one that bodes well for the future of Arab-American relations.
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