How Can Arab Writers Forge a Space ‘Beyond National Origins’?

In the fourth and final part of the series on “the Arabic novel in the West,” Palestinian novelist Raba’i Madhoun asked Palestinian-British writer Selma Dabbagh, author of Out of It, for her views:

Photo credit: Jonathan Ring
Photo credit: Jonathan Ring

Dabbagh argued that writers — and this is perhaps particularly true of the current era — cannot be considered just national writers, as they are influenced by many traditions:

“I believe that geographical and linguistic labels on literature are less relevant than the way that writers, wherever they are or come from, are able to emotionally communicate a story. A Libyan writer may have more in common with an Argentinian writer than another Libyan in terms of style and approach. It would be hard to find a writer who has not read and been influenced by writers beyond their national boundaries.”

While a linguistic tradition and milieu certainly shape writers, Arab authors might as likely count Marquez an influence as Mahfouz.

However, despite this, Dabbagh said that Arab authors, both those who write in Arabic and in other languages, are mostly only read in English by “a ‘foreign interest’ readership, and this is reflected in the way that they are marketed and promoted.”

She mused about how South Americans writers had been able to escape this: “Maybe going through a phase of overt magical realism, where characters grew wings and flew up to the ceiling, was the way that South American literature was able to establish itself as a fictive form?”

Some writers in the UK and Europe who are burdened with “foreign names” — Dabbagh named Kazuo Ishiguro, Yasmina Reza — have been able to forge a space beyond their national origins. But she could think of no Arab writers who’d been able to do this. (I might toss in Lebanese-Canadian novelist Rawi Hage and Jordanian-American Diana Abu Jaber, although noting that Abu Jaber’s most recent book, Birds of Paradise, which is set among Anglo Floridians, got a marketing package that struggled a bit oddly against her name. So, yes, the general point is still fair.)

Dabbagh says: “It seems harder for Arab writers to break into new readerships and new fictive terrains than other European-language writers from ethnic minorities, but there is no reason why this shouldn’t change.”

Is it? What might change it?

You can read her full commentary here.


  1. who does she mean by “other European-language writers from ethnic minorities”? am feeling particularly anti anglo-centric today …

    1. She means you.

      1. but i am not an ethnic minority. nor are the people who write in flemish, or romanian, or albanian or whatever. we just … um … don’t speak english as our first language. it’s not illegal. *sigh*

        1. and yes, i know what the name of this blog is. you know i do.

        2. It’s not illegal??

          1. might be by now. lemme check :-/

  2. So the post is saying that interest in “Arabic literature” (and the definition used here is either that the writer is ethnically Arab and/or the writing is in the Arabic language) is limited to a minority of the English readership willing/wanting to read foreign literature. And the question posed is, how can Arab literature become more widely read (i.e. not limited to the above mentioned minority)?
    I think that no foreign literature escapes its foreignness. It is only the individual authors that do.

    As for the example mentioned above regarding Latin literature, I think that Latin literature has escaped its foreignness by adopting elements that had become international through its own authors. (It might help to think about it like this: There are a set of elements that are considered international. Marquez comes and manages to slip in a new element into this pool of “international elements,” then Latin authors adopt the new element introduced by Marquez and therefore they become more appealing to the wider international leadership).
    So Arab literature needs an author to become appealing to the international readership, then they should adopt the element(s) this author has introduced.
    BTW these are just passing thought. I’m not married to any of them, so feel free to disagree or add whatever you want 🙂

    1. Well, they’re Selma’s thoughts, not mine, but I can follow up on her argument.

      I think there are many Arab authors who have internationally appealing fiction. Nonetheless, when (many) publishers package Arab books — and when readers look at them — they see, “Oh god, Arab name, this means = Arab stuff.” Whereas with a South American writer (for instance), publishers and readers might be more likely to say, “Yes, global stuff.” I wish I still had the news release that came along with Diana Abu Jaber’s Birds of Paradise.

      1. Your right, but that means… Damn, I gotta change my name.

        1. 🙂

  3. Marketing and distribution are dimensions of the problem that cannot be ignored.

  4. A few thoughts.

    Latin American writers: it’s hard to avoid using the word ‘genre’ here, but I don’t know what these many writers have said about each other’s work, and whether they would characterise their kind of writing as a ‘genre’. ‘Genre’ has certainly helped give Scandinavian crime writing a market in English in recent years.

    Writers of Arab origin breaking away from ‘the baggage of their foreign names’. That’s a personal perspective of Selma’s surely. Others may not see it at all in such terms.

    The Latin American writers and Scandinavian writers referred to above are not living in an adopted or second culture. It’s purely about translation.

    Writers of non-anglo-saxon origin being widely read for reasons not to do with their cultural origins (with or without foreign-sounding names). Fairly few, I would think, who are really internationally known. Michael Ondaatje would be one such. Also I’d suggest Monica Ali, with Alentejo Blue. And recently – and very interestingly – Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man. Even going back in time, still fairly few. (Joseph Conrad would be an example but of course he changed his name!)

    I agree that Rawi Hage is an outstanding writer who moves between Arab and non-Arab cultural domains wonderfully. I’m trying to think whether there are any writers of Arab origin writing in French that have done the same. But I can’t for the moment.

    While all of this provides context for a discussion of the force of Arab writing among non-Arabic speaking readers, there are so many variables and – in the end – so few examples for each variable, that I’m not sure how much it helps to understand the challenge.

    1. Yes, perhaps you’re right. Vladimir Nabokov (to go with Conrad, and he didn’t change his name).

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