‘Go and Look Properly’ for the Best of Arabic Fiction

"Go and look properly," says al-Shaykh.

I am still digging around in the soon-to-be-published Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) report on Hebrew/Turkish/Arabic translation into the English (1990-2010), written in part by Alice Guthrie. One of the interesting issues raised is how publishers choose which Arabic-language fiction to translate and publish.

The AUC Presses and BQFPs of the world are a bit of a yawn in this respect; they might get some things wrong, sure, but it’s not for lack of consulting a wide variety of sources and reading widely in Arabic and English. But how the larger commercial publishers choose is a bit of a black box, and remains so even after reading the report. I continue to wonder if this statement, from Edward Said, still holds:

In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher, who was then looking for “Third World” books to publish, in putting out several of the great [Naguib Mahfouz]’s works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language.

Said’s publisher is New York, not London, but I don’t know that it matters.

For the most part, the LAF report doesn’t clarify how big UK publishers interact with Arabic-language work. But as an admirer of Hanan al-Shaykh—particularly her earlier novels—I was attentive to her comments. Al-Shaykh also seems the most likely, of those interviewed, to know how big publishers work. She said:

You seldom find mainstream UK publishers who are willing to use [professional] readers to tell them about books – they just go for something that has already been translated. The Yacoubian Building was already a best-seller in Arabic and doing well in its French translation before it was picked up in the UK.

Later in the report, al-Shaykh is quoted as saying that she feels the judging of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is not up to snuff, and that, thus far, the winners have not represented the best of new Arabic fiction.

The report is too polite to give examples, but I’m not. The inaugural prize elevated Mekkawi Said’s chaotic Cairo Swan Song to the shortlist while Sonallah Ibrahim’s brilliant Stealth was nowhere on the lists, nor was Amina Zaydan’s Naguib Mahfouz-medal-winning Red Wine. Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping was on the longlist, but not the short.

We’ll give the 2008 judges the benefit of the doubt: I assume that Ibrahim’s Stealth didn’t make the lists because he didn’t agree to be nominated. Nominations require the author’s consent.

This is a foolish and bad policy. The best book should be chosen, full stop, and the author’s “consent” should have nothing to do with it. (Authors are always free to turn down awards, even in spectacular style, like Ibrahim.) So Radwa Ashour didn’t want to be nominated for the 2011 award for Tantoureya? So what.

But Ashour and Gamal al-Ghitani didn’t want to be nominated, and thus they weren’t. After all, to win the IPAF, not only do authors need to consent to their nomination, but, “The winner and the shortlisted authors must agree, by having submitted their works, to be available for promotional activities such as tours and media appearances related to the Prize, both in the Arab world and abroad.”

Can you imagine Sonallah Ibrahim going in for that?

Anyhow. Al-Shaykh told report authors that she would like to see a jury established “dignified and judicious, with no agenda.” This jury would compile an ongoing list of the best new Arabic books for publishers to consult. She added:

I feel like saying to publishers, ‘Go and look properly for someone to advise you, and be serious about it – rather than being sloppy about it because it‘s foreign.’ They need to forget about the stories behind the book, the story of the author and so on, and look for good literature! But it‘s very difficult to find genuine interest from publishers. They should be turning to someone really selective and dedicated to quality for advice.