Imen Yacoubi on Writing in English in Tunisia

Author Imen Yacoubi teaches English at the University of Jendouba and is a doctoral candidate in English literature. She is looking to establish Moorings, a new Maghrebi cultural review in English. She says, “We are hoping to establish a portal for free, innovative, and responsible artistic representation that mirrors the condition of this particular historical moment.” You can read a few of Yacoubi’s stories on WritersCafe

ArabLit: Why English? I imagine most of us are familiar with the history of Francophone Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian authors (and Anglophone Egyptians and Sudanese), but not authors from western North Africa writing in English.

Imen Yacoubi: First let me say something about the ‘Literature of the Maghreb’ in general, which is a 20th century invention to my thinking. This does not mean that there had been no writers from these countries before that, the Maghreb has a long literary tradition, which has always been regarded as part of the cultural scene of the Arab Islamic world at large. The concept of North Africanness as an autonomous identity could be said to have been fathered by colonialism.

Now as you said, there was a big wave of writers who started writing in French, and French literature became mainstream beside literature in Arabic. The French and Arabic language were spoken and the languages studied at school, and French especially became the language of the educated elite. We have to understand that Francophone dominance is not only cultural and social, it had been also imposed by a political reality determined by France’s interests in the region. We know that a desire to write in the language of the dominant culture is not only determined by its supremacy, but also the desire of the writers in this region countries to ‘write back’ to use Gayatri Spivak’s term, using the same weapon, i.e. language.

Now, there was no such thing regarding the English language. We know it [British colonialism] happened in other parts of the world like in South Asian countries, but the Maghreb was not historically involved in an active interchange with the English speaking world.

If we should witness in the next years the birth of a Maghrebi Anglophone literature, it will be mostly a matter of choice and taste. Indeed, it is now a matter of taste. The educational policies of the countries of the Maghreb, especially Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, are now shifting toward a relative decentralization of French and toward the encouragement of foreign languages, mainly English. But that is not all. We cannot deny the role of globalization, as there has been a growing tendency among young people to express themselves through ‘Englishness’ with the sudden explosion of global exchange of culture. We should not neglect another important factor when it comes to writing and literary creativity. A writer’s choice of language is also a matter of emotional identification, not only linguistic competence. Among many languages he knows and is good at, a writer may choose to write uniquely in one language and we know of many writers across the world who did that.

AL: Can you tell me about particular authors who write in English?

IY: There are a good number of Maghrebi academic writers who write in English, and those are especially affiliated with the English departments in different universities. However, there is a big absence of creative writers from the scene. There is no such thing as an organized body of Maghrebi writers who write in English, or a network of connected authors whose writings reverberate common concerns. I think it will be years before such a thing appears and solidifies.

Moroccans however could be pioneering in the experience of writing in English. Laila Lalami’s novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which won the British Council literary prize in 2003 and which tackles the issue of illegal immigration could be said to be the most remarkable literary work originally written in English and to become known in an English speaking country, the United States. I can cite other writers who despite the fact that they write in French or Arabic, are also translated into English. There is Tahar Ben Jelloun and Youssouf Amine Elalamy who both write in French and whose works are translated into English. Laila Abouzid writes in Arabic, and her books are also translated into English. There are a number of other emerging writers who write in English and who have had a limited experience with publication, like Abdelkader Hammouchi, Touria Nakkouch and Omar Bihmidane.

AL: Why start a cultural review of Magrhebi literature in English?

IY: The idea of starting a cultural review in English was instigated by the existence of writers who had chosen to write in English but who could not get published or receive any encouragement because the tradition of writing in English is non-existing in North Africa. Originally, the idea for Moorings (the name of the review) was inspired by Medi-Cafe, a project sponsored by the British Council, and it was thanks to it that a number of young unpublished writers who write in English came to be in touch with each other. The project was a series of workshops that tutored members about the techniques of creative writing.

However very beneficial the workshops were, discussing the issue of publication remained a kind of taboo throughout the project, and we were told in more than one way that publication had to be our burden. In fact nothing could be more accurate; publication is a headache for the new writer, and his headache alone. Second, the situation in the Maghreb echoes its specific cultural, social and political reality, though it will be totally wrong to assume that it is separate from those of the wider Arab Islamic region. The illegal crossing of immigrants into Europe for instance is widely tackled especially in Moroccan literature. For a long time, the interaction of Maghrebi societies with the southern banks of the Mediterranean throughout the years of colonization and after, have produced themes that still resonate in the literature of the Maghreb.

In addition, the times could not be more convenient as the geopolitical transition attests to. We have had 3 dictatorships toppled in the Arab world, and 2 of them were in the Maghreb. The rest of the region is being shaken into action, and change is the question of the moment. The forms of this change are being imagined in different ways, and artistic representation is a key medium to articulate it. We are hoping to establish a portal for free, innovative and responsible artistic representation that mirrors the condition of this particular historical moment.

AL: What part do you think could it play in the larger Maghrebi and Arab cultural scene, the cultural dialogue?

IY: I think that if the content is of good quality, it can have a deep impact on the wider cultural scene. First of all, it will encourage similar projects as the number of similar revues is very limited. Starting a publication in a specialized area and a specialized language is a bold undertaking; in a region dominated by French and also receiving considerable support from the francophone region, not many would be tempted to do it. Second, we know that the Arab cultural scene is to a certain extent well anchored in Anglophone writing and that would facilitate connecting Maghrebi writers who chose to write in English with others from the Arab region.

But most of all, I am thinking that the readership of the Maghreb will be widened and pushed outside the boundaries of the Francophone world; readers in Britain, Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and South Asia, will be able to read texts of Maghrebi authors who are for instance discussing the impacts of the Arab Spring on their region.

Note: Moorings will be opening up to submissions in the coming weeks.