Hoda Barakat: ‘What Aggravates Me’ Is Recognition Comes Solely from the West

Over at the Daily Star Lebanon this week, India Stoughton has a lovely interview with Man Booker International finalist Hoda Barakat:

hoda_1Barakat says, in the interview, that she hadn’t heard of the Man Booker International Prize before learning she was on the finalists’ list. “But of course it was extremely happy news.”

She adds, later in the interview:

I’m very happy, even if I don’t win, to have been included on the list, but I want to add something that is very important for me. I write in Arabic, and my books are set in the Arab world, and the readers that I have in mind are Arab, but what aggravates me slightly is that my recognition always comes from the Western world.

I would like to know why, because I don’t write shocking or provocative literature. It’s true that there are readers who love my work but I don’t have a huge Arab following. … My aim is not to be recognized in the West. I don’t consider that to be more important than being recognized for my work in the Arab world. There are a lot of advantages to writing in a European language, but I will continue to write in Arabic. Whether recognition comes or not, my world is the Arab world.

It is less surprising that Barakat has achieved recognition in French and English, and more than she has not won more acclaim in Arabic. It was surprising, indeed, that Barakat’s Kingdom of This Earth (2012) didn’t move off the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist, just as Elias Khoury’s brilliant Sinalcol didn’t that year.

Although Barakat has lived more than two decades in France, she was born in the Lebanese town of Bsharre, known as “Gibran Khalil Gibran’s village,” and lived there until she moved to Beirut to study French literature.

After graduating, Barakat moved to Paris to work on a PhD, but returned when Lebanon’s civil war began, where she worked as a teacher, translator, and journalist — falling in love with and marrying at the height of the war. Barakat published her debut story collection, Visitors, in Beirut in 1985, and that’s where she worked on Stone of Laughter. In a 2004 interview, Barakat told Brian Whitaker that she wrote The Stone of Laughter while she was in Beirut, during the war.

She then returned with her two sons to Paris in 1989, a year before the war’s end.

It was in Paris that Barakat began publishing her major works, including The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciplines of Passion (1993), the Naguib Mahfouz-medal winning The Tiller of Waters (1998), My Master and My Beloved(2004), and the IPAF-longlisted Kingdom of This Earth (2012). The first three have been translated into English, the second two by by Marilyn Booth. My Master and My Beloved has also been published in a simplified edition for Arabic-language learners by Georgetown University Press.

Barakat said in the Daily Star interview that she strongly favors Booth’s translations.

She also said that she would not consider switching to writing novels in French, although she does journalistic work in French:

No. I think that living outside Lebanon makes me even more attached to the Arabic language. It’s almost the only thing I have left. On top of that, it’s the language that shapes my thoughts. That is to say that I wouldn’t write the same books in a different language.

In an interview coming soon to the Library of Arabic Literature and ArabLit sites, Man Booker International judging chair Marina Warner talks about what she finds so beautiful and significant about Barakat’s work.

A brief excerpt of Kingdom of this Earth:

Trans. Ghada Mourad

An excerpt from The Stone of Laughter

Trans. Sophie Bennet

English-language interviews with Barakat:

With Youssef Rakha, 1999

With Elisabeth Marie, in 2002

With Olivia Snaije, in 2003

With Brian Whitaker, in 2004

With Finnegan’s List, in 2012 

With Suneela Mubayi, in 2012 

With India Stoughton, in 2015


Barakat on receiving the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature

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