‘Yes, Wonderful Things’: Reem Bassiouney on Making It As a Female Author, Without Compromises

Earl of Carnarvon, who sponsored the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, was present with Howard Carter when the archaeologist first chiselled into the tomb. Carnarvon finally asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things!”

By Yasmine Motawy

Novelist Reem Bassiouney.
Novelist Reem Bassiouney.

Writer-academic Yasmine Motawy recently spoke to award-winning Egyptian novelist and academic Reem Bassiouney about her novel of the same title — Ashyaa Rai’a (Wonderful Things) — published by Dar Al Adab in 2010 and set for release in English in 2016. Bassiouney has two other novels, The Pistachio Seller and Professor Hanaa, available in English translation.

Yasmine Motawy: Your books have romantic elements in them that we don’t normally find in  contemporary Arabic fiction. Why did you as a serious writer not shy away from love as a theme?

Reem Bassiouney: It’s true, now that you mention it, there is little romantic love in new books, but the characters are heavily symbolic and archetypal so the romantic relationships are not really relationships at all, they are more the interactions of individual egos with other egos around them. My characters are all deeply imperfect, which I feel stops the romances they have from feeling “romantic.”

YM: The book discusses class issues. Is this a manifesto on class?

RB: Not at all; I wanted to represent what I see as the cruelty and rigidity of the class system I see today. Gated communities of selective clubs, schools, and careers — such as diplomacy — control people’s access to spaces and make real social mobility a very tricky business, as you can see with the character of Asmaa in the book. The scene where she humiliates herself by jumping into the water to retrieve a spoiled child’s plaything is symbolic of the humiliation involved in trying to ingratiate oneself with those with power in the hope that her children can move up in the world.

In fact, all the characters represent various Egyptian “types” and their complex relationship to Egypt: the frustrated intellectual activist in the ivory tower with her superficial understanding of the problems of the underprivileged; the 1960 generation of corrupt yet conservative officials who — much like abusive spouses — love Egypt but feel that only force can ‘whip it into shape.’ There is also Asmaa, or Egypt, with her goal of a better future that she doggedly pursues with stubborn oblivion to reality, flexibility, and patient tolerance for humiliation. There is also the character who is from the professional upper middle class who wants to maintain his bubble but feels obliged to conduct tepid forays into an Egypt he loves but is afraid to know.

YM: The fantastic title of the book is not where pharaonic references end. Can you tell us more about this?

RB: The desire to build monuments that immortalize one as eternally important is a pharaonic thing, and both the reluctant architect of the mausoleum and the ‘captain’ who wants it made have a megalomania of sorts that drives the events of the story. The title of the book begs the question: “which wonderful things?” And the answer depends on who is answering.

YM: What do you think about the current state of Arabic fiction? The popular literary prizes?

RB: I think that the state of Arabic literature is moderate but definitely does not realize the potential of Egyptian writers — especially women writers, who have to work double in a highly corrupt system with close networks. It is a big challenge and clear in the number of women authors who’ve made it with no compromises.

YM: How is the reception of your work different in Arabic and in translation?

RB: The reception of my work is different because for a foreign audience the novel tells much about Egypt and Egyptians, so it is also sometimes either the first encounter or a breaker of stereotypes. For an Egyptian audience, the characters and the social factors take over.

YM: Where are you now in terms of books (book being written, published, translated)?

RB: This novel Ashyaa Rai’a (Wonderful Things) will come out March 2016 in English under the name Mortal Designs by AUC Press. I am working on a new one.

Yasmine Motawy works in the department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo and is also a scholar of children’s literature and a translator.