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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fatena al-Gharra: The Lost Button and Woman of Mint

Two final poems from Fatena al-Gharra, as translated by Sarah Maguire, Anna Murison and Sarah Vaghefian in their workshop at the Poetry Translation Centre: The Lost Button, a sensual moment snatched on a hurried pavement (I can't help but hear an allusion to Gertrude Stein's lovely and loving Tender Buttons in the title); and Woman of Mint. The poem is divided into two stanzas, a She stanza and a He stanza, with the person of the opposite gender only appearing in the final two lines of each stanza, creating an erotic tension from the (mandated) separation of the genders in observant Islamic societies. In her notes, Sarah comments that
It's fascinating to witness a woman poet writing in Arabic using a 'feminine' mint plant and a 'masculine' nettle to express her feelings about gender.
The play with the natural world and the switch of point-of-view in the poem is reminiscent of the Song of Songs, in which the female speaker may be the Queen of Sheba and aligned with the Arabic world, and the male speaker Solomon and aligned with the Israelites. So here the male figure is a nettle, a plant that spreads and takes over land. Within the erotic tension is (perhaps) a biting national allegory, controlled by the female voice.

Books Across Borders: Beirut39 at Hay; the Bubisher in Western Sahara

As well as the Free the Word festival taking place in New York, there's news of a new addition to the summer festival line-up from the innovative folks at the Hay festival, a celebration of Arabic literature at this year's festival to recognise Beirut's status as UNESCO World Capital of the Book 2009. The Tanjara has curated event listings for panels and readings involving Arab writers. And there's still time to enter - or nominate someone for - the beirut39 project to find 39 writers of Arab heritage under 39.

And in Western Sahara, a mobile library is bringing joy and/of literacy to children in refugee camps. The Bubisher, named after a good-luck bird, is a bus carrying books for a reading plan, according to Global Voices. The bus, of course, has a blog written by its originator, Spanish publisher Gonzalo Moure. As for what's on the bus, Global Voices quotes Kalandra blog: I
n addition to books in Castillian Spanish donated by publishing houses like Kalandra, Bubisher has a collection of books for children and youth in the Arabic language strengthening the ties with multiculturalism.
You can become a Bubisher friend and circulate, translate and promote their materials.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Movements: Fatena al-Gharra

The Poetry Translation Centre are working away on poems by the last two poets in our Gaza portfolio, Fatena al-Gharra and Khaled Abdallah. Last week's workshop produced this delicately witty and boldly sensual translation of al-Gharra's "Movements." You can enjoy it on the PTC site, where you can also take a look at the original Arabic poem and a literal version.

World Literature/Literature and the World: Three Views

It's the beginning of literary festival season, and Chad Post at Three Percent has been travelling to many of them, including Montréal's Metropolis Bleu festival, which claims to be the world's first multilingual literary festival; in this rather breathless post he contemplates Canada's "two solitudes" and the implications for global publishing at large -- and gives a sense of the new transnationality of the publishing business.

Over at NewPages, Denise offers a post on the "conundrum" of world literature that picks up on two recent articles about the topic, including Pankaj Mishra's Author, Author column from last Saturday's Guardian Review, which offers a Marxist analysis of "world" literature as a globalised market. Her other pick is a Reuters article concerning the lack of circulation of contemporary Chinese writing. One of the article's sub-heads refers to the "Banned in China" brand, supported by a quote from Jo Lusby of Penguin:
Oftentimes 'banned in China' is the only selling point publishers can use to communicate what the book is about. I don't think it's surprising it's not necessarily the big literary tomes from China which are making it out, but it's the more racy, pacey books.
While censorship may help foreign rights sales, it still "hurts" writers' careers inside China, as Yan Geling comments in the article. The global market is not bringing freedom of expression to the country, in other words.

An article on the AFP about Arabic literature suggests that the fashion for translating banned or controversial books is an extension of Orientalism, whereby only works that conform to (and flatter) Western notions of oppression and liberation get picked up for translation. Lebanese author Jabbour Doueihy makes a sharp critique of the current boom in Arabic novels when he tells the AFP,
Individualism and the ego awoke in the Arab world through the novel, as though it were personal resistance against oppression.
Fakhri Salih, a former jury member for the award and current chairman of Jordan's association of literary critics added that the small upturn in translation, media attention and international funding for Arabic novels stems from a political motivation:
The Arab novel offers Westerners an 'anthropological' tool to understand the Arab world, which has been accused of terrorism since the September 11 attacks.

Yet this 'anthropological' depth of understanding is exactly what Reuters argue that translations from contemporary Chinese literature could offer to Western readers, rather than the equally 'anthropological' titillations of sexual explicitness. NewBooks is right: world literature is a conundrum. Where all the articles agree is that translation is of paramount importance for increasing access internationally, and that the motivations of literature's gatekeepers (both state and corporate) have to be scrutinised, as they have power over what we read and how.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Festivals: Free the Word, Palestine Festival of Literature

In London today International PEN's Free the Word festival kicks off. Running through the weekend, it boasts a packed calendar of themed events exploring Heaven and Earth -- set off beautifully by the festival's primary location, Shakespeare's Globe. The festival brings together writers from around the world, many of whom make their homes in the UK, including to UK-based Arab writers: Samir El-Youssef will take part in "Beyond Faith and Reason" this evening, while on Sunday Leila Aboulela will join controversial French author Catherine Millet to discuss "Heavenly Pleasures."

Travelling in the opposite direction, 17 international writers head to Palestine for the second Palestine Festival of Literature from 23rd-28th May 2009. Because of the difficulties Palestinians face under military occupation in travelling around their own country, the Festival group of 17 international writers will travel to its audiences in the West Bank. It will tour to Ramallah, to Jenin, to al-Khalil/Hebron and to Bethlehem. To mark Jerusalem’s status as Cultural Capital of the Arab World for 2009, the festival will begin and end in Jerusalem. On the occasion of the first festival, last year, Mahmoud Darwish said:
Thank you, dear friends, for your noble solidarity, thank you for your courageous gesture to break the moral siege inflicted upon us and thank you because you are resisting the invitation to dance on our graves. We are still here. We are still alive.

This year, there are several Arab writers participating: Suad Amiry, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Jamal Mahjoub, Raja Shehadeh, and Ahdaf Soueif. Soueif, chair and Founder of PALFEST, said
We were overwhelmed by the responses of both our audience and our authors last year; so we can't wait to go back. We found that Palestinian cities – even in theextraordinarily cruel circumstances in which they find themselves – manage to produce brilliant art and top class education. PALFEST aims to help them carry on doing that.
The Palestine Festival of Literature was inspired by the call of the late great Palestinian thinker, Edward Said, to “reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power.” PALFEST 09 is organized in co-operation with Yabous Productions, and in partnership with the British Council.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Darwish Therapy in Athens Airport

A beautiful post about poetry in motion (and in everyday life, both lived and virtual) by Palestinian blogger Raising Yousuf.


Global Voices provides some context on Raising Yousuf blogger Laila El-Haddad's airport purgatory. El-Haddad offers up this thought as a larger context for her own recent experience of being refused entry into Gaza, her home:
“The quintessential Palestinian experience,” historian Rashid Khalidi has written, “takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

News and Reviews: Arab Book World & a New Biography

There's a new issue of Arab World Books: as well as new poems, short stories and reviews, it includes an announcement that
The American University in Cairo is currently undertaking a feasibility study for the establishment of a center for translation studies that will contribute to the Arab region's cultural and intellectual life. Interested parties should contact Dr. Samia Mehrez.
There's more details in the Announcements section of the Forum. It's a publication of amazing range and depth, from a joint review of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon to an essay entitled The Secret Sex Lives of the Philosophers [Ar], by Abdou Hikki. The site is constantly updated with profiles of Arab writers and new work in the various languages spoken in the Arab world. An excellent resource and space of important cultural debate.

The National has a review of what the article reveals is, unbelievably, the first biography - in any language - of a Palestinian poet. Alina Hoffman's My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is not only a biography of Taha Muhammad Ali (published in English by Ibis Editions, founded by Hoffman and her partner, Peter Cole), but also, according to the National, a superb contextual history of Palestinian intellectual and artistic life over the last half-century. Writing in the Seattle Times, Richard Wallace comments that
Hoffman expands her biography of one remarkable man to include a community of writers and a wider theme: how major events in Israel's political history influence and affect a writer's voice and purpose.

Updated 6/5/09:
The New York Times has a review of Hoffman's biography of Ali, which expresses a warm welcome at her well-told anecdotes and distinct disquiet at anything resembling politics.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Arabic Books in the World Digital Library

Welcome to UNESCO's World Digital Library, the latest -- and possibly largest -- project in the democratisation of print culture. It's not online quite yet, but when it is, internet users will be able to access - in detail - digitised holdings from 32 partner libraries and museums around the world. John van Oudenaren, the project director, is keen to stress the global coverage to which the project aspires, and The Guardian offer a thought-provoking angle:
The Middle East is playing a significant role. The National Library and Archives of Iraq are contributing, among other things, a selection of yellowing newspapers and periodicals from the 19th and 20th centuries written in Arabic, English, Kurdish and Ottoman Turkish. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University and the Qatar Foundation are also taking part, while the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, already a leader in the race to digitise cultural treasures of the Arab world, is providing volumes and plates from the Description of Egypt, a work of scientific observation carried out by French scholars during Napoleon's military foray into the country in 1798.

Dr Sohair Wastawy, chief librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, said the WDL could prove to be an effective and original means of cultural rapprochement. "So much of the recent problems between the west and the Islamic and Arab worlds has come from misunderstanding," she said. "This project will allow us to show where we come from, our culture and our literature. Being able to communicate this will foster greater dialogue and allow us to introduce Arab culture to the rest of the world."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Message from Gaza: From Blog to Book

Professor Dr. Said Abdelwahed is one of the three bloggers at Moments of Gaza who have been providing on-the-ground news and observations from Gaza since December 2008. Dr. Abdelwahed's blogs struck a chord with Mari Oka, professor of Islamic and Middle East studies at Kyoto University, who translated and collected the posts into a book just published by Sedosha in Tokyo. Dr. Abdelwahed notes that
The Message from Gaza was the first book to document part of the war on Gaza from inside!
The swift transition from blog to book, and from English to Japanese, is distinctive evidence of the internet's potential to change the shape of journalism and publishing towards inclusion, polyphony and democratisation, while retaining high standards of reportage.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Voices from Gaza: Khaled Abedallah

It's been a while since the last poems in our series, but new translations are arriving. Sarah Maguire and the Poetry Translation Centre have been translating work by Khaled Abedallah, and the first poem Seeds in Flight has gone up on the PTC website. More work to come from this wonderful writer, and two pieces by Khaled Jum'a are being co-translated by Isis Nusair and Michael Rosen. To hear and see more about Gaza, check out the program for the 10th Palestine Film Festival, which takes place in London from April 24th - May 8th 2009 at the Barbican Cinema and SOAS.

Digital Democracy in the Arab World: The Good News

First up, a new project brought to my attention by Body on the Line: R-Shief (Arabic for archive): describes itself as
an initiative in the field of knowledge production that distinguishes a contemporary Arab transnational public as an emerging voice on the world stage deserving serious attention given this community’s role in current geopolitical, international, and transcultural agendas.
Part-library, part-journal, all online, R-Shief offers both speed and accessibility, and includes non-traditional research methods such as "digital video, personal narratives in the form of blogs, collaborative production models and other mixed media." Its current focus is on Gaza; you can contact initiator Laila Shereen to discuss adding or using material.

And revisiting a story from the early days of this blog: the case of Magdy elShafee's graphic novel Metro is coming to trial in Egypt. Global Voices (who published excerpts from Metro in translation) published an open letter from AlShafee asking for support -- and this is what makes it good news, despite the prosecution -- from the global blogosphere, which has taken up the case. AlShafee writes:
Next Saturday April 4th, A court session scheduled for the trial of Magdy El Shafie and Mohammed El Sharkawy (Malameh Publishing House) for distributing, publishing and selling the graphic novel “Metro”,

Your NO for confiscation

Is YES for our freedom

Is YES for our solidarity

Is NOOOOO for the government prelude of harder stringing of freedom of the art and word, in the press, the satellites, the internet and now the independent publishing houses. We invite you to say: NO for metro confiscation and trial, Support freedom of arts and expression

Metro is considered the first graphic novel in Egypt. written and illustrated by Magdy El Shafee who won the UNESCO gratitude for best African comics 2006

Egyptian government officials said the book was “harmful to public manners” due to its alleged political and social commentary.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) - a pan-Arabic network that promotes freedom of speech has rejected the confiscation of the novel and considers it a severe violation against the freedom of expression.

With the coming court session next saturday April 4th, HRinfo and 4 human rights organizations announced a new condemnation in March 30th entitled: [Egypt`s Farouk Hosny goes to UNESCO, and Magdy Elshafee goes to the court!! the auther of Egypt's graphic novel “metro” threatened with 2 years jail sentence.] ([in Arabic])

We look for your solidarity; on your blog. Add a comment here [in Arabic] and here [in Arabic] and on Facebook and here.

We lean on your being there in Abdeen court, down town Cairo 9 am Naguib metro station next saturday April 4th.

best regards.

Magdy ElShafee
comics artist
Add your voice -- here as well! -- to the outcry against this trial and the original confiscation.

Updated 3/4/09
Marwa Rakha has a comprehensive update on the online coverage of the trial and ElShafee's campaign in today's Global Voices.
Add to Technorati Favorites MetaxuCafe