These are eight novels that should all be read for next year’s prize.
As I wrote here and in The Guardian, the IMPAC prize has a strange relationship with Arabic (and many other non-Euopean language) literature. If any IMPAC-nominating libraries are reading this, please consider reading these eight titles:
Land of No Rain, Amjad Nasser, trans. Jonathan Wright. My review in The Guardian begins: “Land of No Rain begins in a futuristic, plague-wracked London. This might seem an odd start to a semi-autobiographical novel that harks back to classical Arabic forms, but the book is constantly shape-shifting, changing its tone from the academic to the lyric, the romantic to the slapstick.” UK libraries in particular should take note, as Nasser has lived in England for well on twenty years; thus you could consider him part of the home-town team.
June Rain, Jabbour Douaihy, trans. Paula Haydar. My review in Qantara opens: “On the face of it, Jabbour Douaihy’s “June Rain” doesn’t look like a mystery novel. We generally know who’s at fault in the novel’s main crime, a shoot-out in a village church. But because it was committed by so many in the village shooting so wildly, it isn’t clear how any particular person died. Which of the victims were also shooters? Which were caught in the crossfire? As the novel progresses, Eliyya Kfoury, who stands at the narrative’s centre, comes back to the village of Barqa to find out more about his father’s death in 1957.” The book takes place, in part, in NYC, so New Yorickan librarians please consider this in your court.
Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha, trans. Paul Starkey. This book — Rakha’s debut novel — gave him, in the words of Anton Shammas, “an immediate spot in the Hall of Fame of modern Arabic literature.” You can read an excerpt newly published on The Collagist. And if it charms you, do get Rakha’s sophomore novel, Crocodiles, trans. Robin Moger. You can read an excerpt from that on Bomb magazine.
Women of Karantina, Nael Eltoukhy, trans. Robin Moger. This rollicking, crazy, fantastical portrait of a future Cairo will delight your mind and curl your eyebrows. If you need more convincing, read a conversation about the book between ArabLit, the author, and the translator, in which Moger says: “To the Anglophone reader I would say: Good evening. Women of Karantina is a savage comic epic, relentlessly ironic, uncompromisingly rude, profoundly moral, totally true, good value for money, and available online. Ihab Abdel Hamid said of it: هتفشخ دماغ الخواجة.” Eltoukhy races, and Moger matches him. With this novel and Rakhas’, perhaps a Michigan library could take them on.
Other Lives, Iman Humaydan Younes, trans. Michelle Hartman. A personal reflection on the novel on ArabLit begins: “As I began reading, I felt the narrator’s emotions as my own: her longing for a place that isn’t quite a longing for place, but rather ‘for what’s inside myself that I’m losing every day, for what I lose while I’m away.’ The narrator’s in-between-ness, her reaching toward something that is always receding.” Australia figures here, so I leave it with Australian libraries to nominate this book.
Woman of Tantoura, Radwa Ashour, trans. Kay Heikkinen. One of Ashour’s most popular and enjoyable novels, a multigenerational epic about the many travels of a Palestininan woman trying to tell her story and keep together her family. Particularly insightful about women and sons. Ashour did her MA and PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, so this book is the Northeast’s responsibility.
French Perfume, Amir Tag El Sir, trans. William Hutchins.This new translation, of El Sir’s French Perfume, is an over-the-top East-West entanglement novel about the way residents react when a Frenchwoman is expected to come to an impoverished Sudanese neighborhood. When she doesn’t show, they create her imaginary form. Unlike in the seminal Season of Migration to the North, written by El Sir’s uncle Tayeb Salih, for these slum residents it’s impossible to emigrate, and the conquest of the Frenchwoman is with the help of the internet and photoshopped images. It’s competently translated by William Hutchins, who doesn’t erode the book’s alternately dark and slapstick (or darkly slapstick?) humor. I guess perhaps the French could carry this one.