Local vs. ‘International’ Literature

What author Anant Kunda has to say about “international” literature in India has echoes in modern Arabic (international) literature.

Hans Dembowski: Who is the audience of Indian authors that write international bestsellers?

Anant Kumar: Well, on the Indian subcontinent, there is only a small stratum of society that has a sufficient command of English to read these books in their original version.

India’s literature-in-the-trenches, then, is not the literature of Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy or Shashi Tharoor, who are writing in English for “world” audiences—which I assume means audiences in the U.S. and U.K.

I have since lost track of it, but I’m searching for a piece where an Egyptian book critic stated that “all” Egyptian authors are aiming primarily at foreign audiences, writing (merely) in the hopes of being translated.

This is not quite what Safaa Ennagar claims about Egyptian literature in Banipal 25, where she says that: “It is a literature of the ‘ghetto’ that neither affects, nor is affected by, social and political movements.” But the criticisms are similar.

Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song (2007 Arabic; 2009 English) seems to play with this issue. Swan Song’s protagonist is working with an American woman to create a documentary about Cairo’s homeless children. Will this documentary help homeless children, or merely entertain foreigners with scenes of glue-huffing street kids? Does Cairo Swan Song somehow address Cairo’s ills, or does it entertain foreigners…with scenes of glue-huffing street kids?

Still, for all the book’s flaws (it tries, like my husband, to be in too many places at once), I think Cairo Swan Song is conscious of these issues, and is trying to grapple with a real, live Egyptian audience. Surely Said also wanted a world audience, but the book is affected by “social and political movements.”

Another recent book that speaks to Egyptians is Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi (2007 Arabic; 2008 English). This book has its flaws—or lost opportunities—but is delightful to read and hits Cairo right in her meaty, beating heart.

And do I have to mention Alaa el-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building?

Still, these three authors have all been translated into English and have achieved a good deal of acclaim (particularly the last gentleman). Why shouldn’t other authors want this acclaim? And what’s wrong with an “international” audience?

I suppose my question is: Is there a such thing as an “international” audience? Sure, there are books that break down boundaries and can be read anywhere and at any time. But how often is “international” audience code for a “U.S. and European” audience? If Egyptian authors speak directly to these (wealthy, Western) readers, and ignore the potential readers here in Egypt….

*For the record, I would like to note that I am a hypocrite, because next month I will start teaching a creative-writing workshop here in Cairo. In English.