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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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Writing from Gaza: A Portfolio

Over the last few weeks, protest songs for Gaza -- by Michael Heart and Invincible, among others -- have been flying around the blogosphere, giving a voice to the anguish and anger of Gazans, who were almost silenced by Israel's media blockade, and by damage to infrastructure. Journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens, resilient and determined, posted when they could, via SMS to friends if they had to, and have made known the stories that didn't appear on the news.

These observations from the moment, on the ground, are thrilling, moving and necessary. They counter media bias, alert us to action, and give us a glimpse of what it feels like to be in Gaza. How much more so, then, might a poem or story, honed by a brilliant writer until it is dense with image and meaning? As the outpouring of grief at Mahmoud Darwish's death last year showed, literature, and poetry in particular, has a particular place in Palestinian culture -- and has had a particular place in reaching out from Palestine to the rest of the world, from Ghassan Kanafani's "Letter from Gaza" to Mourid Barghouti's Midnight.

But only a few Palestinian writers are being translated. In Palestine, the Khalil Sakakini Centre and the House of Poetry have both fostered new writers and new magazines. In the UK, Banipal and Modern Poetry in Translation have both had special Palestine issues in recent years, which have shown the depth and range of work being produced. Telegram's Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, edited by Jo Glanville, introduced a number of new voices, such as Adania Shibli.

When I interviewed Adania in early December 2008, she spoke passionately about the writers she knew in Gaza, about the intensity of their work and the way that Palestinian poetry was changing in response to the conditions of siege. That was before the invasion. When the news and images of Gaza (not from Gaza) began to appear, I emailed Adania and offered to host a selection of writing on the blog: her choice of writers, immediate and new voices with essential things to say and powerful styles in which to say them.

Over the next month, we'll be publishing the work that she selected on the blog, as it arrives from Gaza. The first group of writers to arrive is diverse in age, background, experience, and style, but I find all of their voices compelling. On Monday, there will be a selection of short pieces by novelist, playwright and political scientist Atef Abu Saif, who lives and teaches in Gaza.

Following Abu Saif, whose stories will appear over three days, the blog will feature work from:
Soumaya Susi
Khaled Jum'a
Nasr Jamil Shaath
Fatena al-Gharra
Yousef Alqedra
Naser Rabah
Najah Awadallah
posted as it arrives from the Arabic translators have very graciously given time and support to this project, excited by its urgency and by discovering new work. Each writer presents translators with a different challenge and promise, and each will be translated differently. Excitingly, translator Isis Nusair is working on Khaled Jumaa's work with Michael Rosen and Shaun Levin, two anti-Zionist Jewish writers, whose acts of translation demonstrate how literature can build community and solidarity.

Abu Saif's pieces have been translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, who also translated Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetfulness, a sequence of prose poems framed by the August 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Abu Saif's pieces - microstories, fragments - are dateless, although filled with precise detail of season and place. Minutely focused on a gesture, a piece of graffiti, on the author's own act of seeing, they are both like news stories - in their brevity, their concrete detail - and utterly unlike anything the media can offer.

In a 2008 Guardian article about the Poetry Translation Centre's ambitious tour and chapbook series, Sarah Maguire, who is translating Faten al-Gharra's work for us, wrote:
Poetry in this country is our favourite minority artform, largely greeted with bafflement, often with dismay. And yet we live alongside people for whom poetry is a central, essential passion. My hope is that by attempting to make their poems at home in our language, we can also translate a little of their enthusiasm. Poetry thrives through translation.
With this selection, we hope to show not only that poetry thrives through translation, but that people thrive through poetry, not only being written but being heard. The act of translation -- whether literally between languages, or metaphorically from the page onto a blog -- is a catalyst, a helping hand, to bring readers to the writing, and through that writing to resonant emotions and truths.

As Adania says: we are "trying to make the words of Gaza louder than those of the bullets and the bombings." Please come back to listen over the next month.


Susie said...

For Palestinian writers of earlier generations in English translation let's remember Salma Jayyusi's 1994 monumental 'Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature' published by Columbia University Press, described as a unique and definitive anthology which offers the widest selection ever compiled of modern Palestinian literature. The British poet Sarah Maguire, who has encouraged and translated varoius Palestinian poets, as well as visiting Palestine (eg for the British Council) and writing about it in some of her own poems, recalls how enthralled she was when she first came across this anthology - her initiation into - Palestinian poetry, in a bookshop.

PEN Atlas said...

That's an amazing book, thank you so much for recalling it -- I wonder if Sarah's ever attempted a poem about the experience on the model of Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which she discusses in the article from the Guardian cited above. Poems in translation have such incredible power to engage the verbal and emotional imagination, especially when they arise from a location that is so fraught and storied.

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