Child Narrators in Recent Arabic Fiction

Child narrators are a popular (and old) fictional device: Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn. They can critique society in ways that adults can’t; they can see things in new and fresh ways.

But (and you’ll correct me here!) other than a handful of short stories, such as Tayeb Salih’s “Hafnat tamr (A Handful of Dates),” I can’t think of child-narrated fiction in Arabic from the older school of writers. However, in recent years, there seems to have been a spate of strong, child-narrated fiction:

  • A Sky So Close, Betool Khedairi (Arabic 1999, English 2001)
  • Touch, Adania Shibli (Arabic 2002, English 2010)
  • Stealth, Sonallah Ibrahim (Arabic 2007, English 2010)
  • A Cloudy Day on the West Side, Mohamed Mansi Qandil (Arabic 2009, English in progress)

Evan Maloney, writing in the Guardian books blog, recently claimed (after the death of the great teen-narrating author J.D. Salinger):

The challenges of writing in the voice of a young narrator are off-puttingly severe, and the rare novels that succeed have a potent sentimental appeal.

I have not read Khedairi’s A Sky So Close (only her Absent), but Touch and Stealth are both strong and wonderful and wonderfully crafted. Both are able to address history and social movements from a completely different perspective; Stealth is perhaps still “realism,” but it is certainly a fresh wind of realism. Both of these are “true” child narrators, and not teen narrators, as you find in Salinger or Twain. The part I’ve read of Cloudy Day on the West Side is also very compelling.

One couldn’t call it a movement, or a trend, but I’d call it an opening: I hope other writers step through it.

More about child narrators:

How to craft them.

The rarity of them.

In Macedonian literature (you asked).

From the Macedonian piece (which really is worth reading…after all, who doesn’t need to learn more about Macedonian lit):

A child narrator can, among other things, create a degree of distance between the adult author and his or her message that serves to lessen hostility to that message. Readers tend to be more accepting of a child rather than an adult who gives voice to certain uncomfortable or controversial truths, because, after all, as American talk show host Art Linkletter, who made a career out of publicizing their utterances would say: “Kids say the darndest things”.