Selling Najem Wali’s ‘A Place Called Kumait’ to U.S. Publishers

Words Without Borders puts out a quarterly “WWB Recommends” tip sheet, suggesting a roster of 3-4 books that publishers might like to bring out in English.

The winter 2011 sheet, which I received yesterday, suggests publishers pick up Najem Wali’s A Place Called Kumait, published in Cairo in 1997 (as مكان اسمه كميت). Wali, as they write, is “a longtime WWB favorite”; they’ve published nine of his stories and essays.

The pitch begins with a summary of the novel’s action:

In A Place Called Kumait, Salih, a Baghdad teacher, is disciplined by his employer for his political activism. Given the choice between a transfer to a civil-service job in the water department in Baghdad or to a school in some remote region, Salih requests an assignment to his native village of Kumait. He returns to teach at the local school and to struggle with his past.

Then they say what the book does:

Wali combines psychological insight and political context to produce a compelling portrait of a man in crisis.

And then, the sizzle:

The manuscript includes sexually explicit passages omitted from the Arabic edition.


They don’t give too much sizzle, though. They could’ve quoted Wali for something a bit juicier. In Banipal, he said of his book Journey to Tell al-Lahm, “If you want to generalise, than [sic] I am describing Iraq as a big brothel.”

WWB’s next pitch paragraph goes into a rather straightforward biography (time slogged in Iraq, Hamburg, Madrid, Oxford) and who’s translated Wali’s work: the Germans, the French, the Swedes. They wrap up with a few bullet points and the author’s email address.

They don’t mention that his Joseph’s Picture and Journey into the Heart of the Enemy were translated into English and published by MacAdam/Cage; these books have disappeared due to problems at the publishing house. No quotes from reviews, which would’ve been nice. No comparison to familiar novels (The Bluest Eye meets Kavalier & Clay, that sort of thing.) They also don’t use the more exciting parts of Wali’s autobiography or mention the author’s controversial views on Israel and popular Arab writers.

They also (oddly) don’t mention that a story of Wali’s was published in Harper‘s in 2008, trans. Raymond Stock.  You can’t read it unless you’re a subscriber, but these comments were enthusiastic, and, well, it’s Harper’s.

But forget all that! The interested publisher, you say, will just click over and read an excerpt of the novel on WWB, translated by William Hutchins. And that, of course, is the main event.

The excerpt’s action is interesting: We catch the protagonist just as he’s returning to Kumait and on his first day in the village classroom. The reader wants to know: What did he do in Baghdad, to make authorities require him to sign a ‘pledge’? Will he risk re-engaging in politics? What will come of his  relationship with these students? The portrait is also compelling (a tired man, full of doubt, who’d once felt himself a Raskolnikov). But it takes some doing to enter in; the prose is heavy and at times difficult:

He uttered this sentence as if tossing a stone into a deep well; he was the only one who heard his remark’s echo, because the classroom was sunk in an unusual silence.

Still, if I’ve gotten this far (as a publisher), I’d probably dip into the existing translations of Wali’s work and I might ask an Arabic-reading friend to give the novel a look.  Although I probably wouldn’t have gotten this far. Surely, for a favorite author, WWB could’ve done a harder sell.

What a hard sell looks like:

Once we’ve “gone and looked properly” for the best of Arabic literature, as Hanan al-Shaykh requests, ArabLit could use something like this or this to sell itself. Something that can be handed out at literature festivals. Something slick.