The Stories of Rachida el-Charni

This is a novel, actually, although the bit Robin translated was self-contained and worked as a story.

As with translations, there’s a truism that “short stories don’t sell.”  So a translated short-story collection? The AUC Press has put out a few that aren’t multi-author collections (Final Night, The Hedgehog, Farewell to Alexandria, Mountain of Green Tea, The Lamp of Umm Hashim, Wiles of Men).

Of the above, The Hedgehog is perhaps that only one that’s reached more than a specialized audience. I can think of only one short-story collection that has gotten some good buzz as it made its way from Arabic to English: Hassan Blasim’s Madman of Freedom Square, which will finally come to the US (with more stories) as The Corpse Exhibition in 2013.

However, short stories — or self-contained chapters — are 1) a good way to reach new audiences, even in small magazines, and 2) good tooth-sharpening material for an emerging translator. And when you send off your cover letter to AGNI or Guernica or Ploughshares or Tin House, you can mention that Rachida el-Charni was one of a handful of North African writers featured in the recent Granta Book of the African Short Story, and that her work has also been anthologized in Sardines and Oranges and Short Stories from North Africa.

A chapter from her 2011 novel, تراتيل لآلامها, has already been translated very ably by Robin Moger in the latest Banipal as “Visitors’ day at 9 Avril Prison.”

What’s so special about el-Charni’s stories? She has a particularly sensitive management of groups of people, managing deftly to put great variety and power in them, and also to show how they can act together, as a sort of single character, as she did for instance in the story “The Way to Poppy Street,” from her 2002 collection. There, a group crowds around a character who tries to hang onto her necklace in the face of a determined, knife-wielding thief and an apathetic, critical crowd.

In “Visitors’ day at 9 Avril Prison,” the parents and loved-ones of prisoners come to queue outside the 9 Avril prison in the June heat in order to bring food to their sons, brothers, and fathers. The extreme humanity with which el-Charni treats everyone in the queue is remarkable: the movie star, the woman who clings to her hijab, the woman who has to go buy new containers from a kiosk down the road (her hard-plastic containers were rejected as too dangerous) and who “crouched down beneath the wall, tipped water over them, washed them carefully and transferred the food into them, having first inspected it closely, even smelling it. This accomplished she returned to stand at the back of the long queue, followed by her child.”

Also, after you have translated a story by Rachida el-Charni, you can submit it for the coming year’s Caine Prize for African Writing; this past year, for goodness sakes, there was only one submission from all of North Africa.

More about el-Charni: 

From our cousin-blog Tunisian Literature (in English).