‘Perception of Meaning’: At the Boundary of Arabic Poetry and Apocalypse

Last November, The Perception of Meaning was chosen as a co-winner of the University of Arkansas Award for the Translation of Arabic Literature; now a bilingual edition of the book by Hisham Bustani, trans. Thoraya El-Rayyes, is coming from Syracuse University Press this fall: 

The two of them — author and translator — talk with ArabLit about process, influence, genre, boundaries, translational acts, and even the teaching of Arabic literature (in English).

Okay, ultimately the text is the text, whatever we call it. But why do you call this “flash fiction” instead of a “collection of poetry”?

Hisham 1)Hisham Bustani: I am a writer of prose; of the short form in particular. This is how I define myself and my writing. But I am not at all supportive of boundaries between literary genres. I cross these boundaries regularly. In this collection and some earlier works, it was the boundary with poetry; in my fourth collection, a prominent critic was of the opinion that I was using multiple voices inside the short form, which is one of the main techniques of the novel — thus crossing that boundary. Also, I’ve always been of the opinion that poetry and short fiction, especially flash fiction, are of close kinship, and that short fiction and the novel, although both prose, are very distant relatives.

That being said, I think The Perception of Meaning is my endeavor to test the limits of short fiction as it moves towards the poetic. In the Arabic original, the book had a small subtitle which was dropped in English upon a discussion with the publisher who did not want to burden the book and its cover with genres and subgenres and I agreed with that notion. The subtitle said: “Stories at the Boundaries of Poetry.” The poetic here means impact; means fluidity and flowability; means a certain aesthetic for topics that are generally dark, gloomy, and violent. I wanted to drive my writing towards the contemplative rather than the shocking or the repulsive, so the tools of poetry became essential. And who is to say that works of very short prose like The Cows by Lydia Davis or Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino are not poetry? Who is to say that many of the poems of Charles Bukowski are not pieces of flash fiction?

excerpt5For me, the short story’s most basic requirement is the event, and if there is a narrative that probes the depths of that event, what we have is a story, whether long, short, or short-short. The former two contain elements of poetry (condensation, symbolism, etc); but the latter closes in on poetry, especially prose poetry, or morph entirely into poetry.

I call The Perception of Meaning “flash fiction” because each of its 78 pieces revolve around an event and probes its depth, sometimes to the point of abstraction where it becomes more of a poem like in “Requiem for the Aral Sea” or to a point of lesser abstraction where the structure of a “regular” story is still maintained like in “Skybar.”

All in all, I am very enthusiastic about engaging other literary genres and other arts in the practice of the short form, and this is why you’ll find not only influences of poetry in my work, but also theater, cinema, music, the plastic arts, the use of graphics; and this is why I often take my prose to be “performed” alongside musicians, hip-hop artists, contemporary dancers, visual artists and works of photography.

In that vein, I feel echoes of Zakariya Tamer and Mohamed Makhzangi, but I also feel like I hear poetry, including classical Arabic poetry. (Even al-Ma’ari, at a certain point.) I did not think of Ibrahim al-Koni’s aphorisms in particular, although some pieces felt like aphorisms or anti-aphorisms. Do you enjoy reading poetry? What sort of poetry? What about other short forms?

excerpt4Hisham: Many Arabic writers have this repulsive egoistical trait of not naming their influences especially if the writers in question are alive. I have no such egoism as to deny the shoulders I stood on: Zakariya Tamer has certainly influenced generations of writers including myself; Haidar Haidar was one of my first influences who exposed me to the art of apocalyptic writing. I presume he is the first modern Arabic writer of the apocalypse and he used a beautiful language to do so. Classical poetry is a basic and essential part of any Arabic writer: it is the poetry one is exposed to as a child in school, and the first rhythm of language one absorbs. You are right about al-Ma’ari who (in his existentialism, skepticism, and sometimes black sarcasm) sets himself as very contemporary.

Poetry has always been one of my fascinations, besides contemporary dance and cinema, and I can say that one of the main influences of my writing has been an unknown book of poetry by a mostly unknown Egyptian poet: Imbaratoriyyat al-Hawa’et (The Empire of Walls) by Ahmad Taha, whose strong and dark poems can also stand as pieces of short-short fiction. I have written about my relationship with Ahmad Taha’s work in Arabic in an essay, “The Dismembered Organs of Ahmad Taha That I Throw Onto Others.”

I was introduced to the playful, sarcastic, yet in-your-face poetry of the Lebanese Yahia Jaber at a later stage of my writing life; I don’t think I was influenced by Jaber’s work but I think he is worth mentioning here for the quality of his work and because many of Jaber’s poems have that same characteristic of exploring the depth of an event and containing a narrative stitch: they too can be considered short-shorts. I also have a great admiration for work by a Jordanian poet unknown outside Jordan: Ziad al-Anani. His sharp dissection of life and existence, and his loud discussions with the deity make a reader pause.

I agree with your remarks regarding some of the pieces having the feel of aphorisms/anti-aphorisms; one critic describedThe Perception of Meaning as a “trial to conquer the crisis of regular language in search of a condensed language that resemble the language of sacred Asian texts, a language that is open to free reading, to be understood in many ways. This technique is not familiar or ordinary, but it will be the technique of the future, or the literature of post-writing.” I tend to agree completely with what he said about my tendency towards free reading and free understanding. Condensation liberates the text from the dictatorship of linear interpretation.

Rhythm is central here (which, to be really tedious, makes me think of poetry). I think it was Ibrahim Muhawi who said, of translating M. Darwish, that the most important thing to get right was the rhythm. How central was that to your process? Sometimes, I read the Arabic, and I was startled to feel the same beats as when I read the English. Maybe not exactly, but sometimes nearly so.

thorayaThoraya: Yes, I spent a lot of time counting syllables and reading sentences out loud. For a few of the more difficult pieces, I recorded myself reading the source text and the translation so I could listen to them properly, side by side. I definitely agree that rhythm was central to the Arabic text, so creating something that captured the same feel was important to me.

I love how the endnotes stand apart and yet are integrated into the text. They feel more like liner notes on a CD than academizing “footnotes” or “glossary” explanations in a book. What was your intent, with the endnotes? Why have them at all? Why in this format?

excerpt3Hisham: The stand-alone endnotes have been a longtime stylistic trademark of my work that I am trying to get rid of, but in vain! I feel certain aspects of the condensed text (like names of people, references to works of art, etc) should be opened up to the majority of readers who might not be familiar with those references. This way I maintain the integrity of the text and avoid transforming it into an obscure or a very elitist text.

The endnotes appear abruptly with no warning at the end of the text for two reasons: I don’t want the reader to interrupt the flow of his or her reading in the first instance by putting reference numbers inside the text, and I want the reader to feel the urge to re-read the pieces of each chapter again after reading the footnotes. The endnotes lead the reader immediately to another reading, another interpretation. This is how the main principle of my writing (creating worlds of potentialities and possibilities; some sort of a quantum writing if you like) is tested and explored almost immediately.

Demystifying some of the obscurities of the references I use are also because many of them are not part of the Arabic culture or are not immediately accessible to the Arabic reader: references to biology, physics and cosmology; references to works of art or historical characters. Putting endnotes means putting those references in context for a reader who is new to those references; while, at the same time, not affect the reading of a person who is already familiar with them.

With the endnotes, I try to invite the reader to explore new areas outside the text itself. It is a point where my text does not claim to be The Book, but rather part of a continuum of different arts and literatures: part of a whole, where the part is important but also the whole; where the individual interpretation is important but also the context.

At other instances, the endnotes are an extension of the piece itself: in one I give voice to a person casually mentioned, in another I fabricate a historical reference to intensify the illusive effect of the stories. Here, the footnote is similar Schrödinger’s container, it breathes more uncertainty into the text (=the cat’s inconclusive situation inside) through the illusion of certainty (=the presence of the cat inside).

There are some really lovely turns of phrase in the English (agh, I’m not finding the one I want right now, but trust me) that are faithful, as far as that goes, but are also distinct. To what extent did you feel free to invent your path to English-izing this text?

Thoraya: Long before it ever even occurred to me to translate literature myself, I loved reading well-translated literature and always felt incredibly grateful to the translator for opening up this world to me. So when I translate, I am always thinking about my responsibility towards the reader. I want the reader to experience the text like the reader of the source text would. To me, this means that in the parts where writing style and momentum drive the reading experience, I give myself a lot more leeway to English-ise the text. In the parts where the meaning of the text drives the reading experience, I am much more concerned with being faithful to the source text.

Oh, I do object to calling him Jaber ‘Asfur. (Because it’s Gaber. And don’t tell me you’d make it Najib Mahfouz because that’s wrong.)

Thoraya: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That one slipped through the net. I’m flattered you read the translation so closely though!

Thoraya/Soraya, what was your process? Does Hisham’s looming presence ever limit you? Like you want to do something REALLY WILD but you think he’ll reject it?

Thoraya: I don’t mind at all when he rejects my ideas, or let’s say when he tries to reject them. It’s a great opportunity to have a loud argument in our regular café, and make a public spectacle of ourselves. Hisham has a brilliant literary instinct, so his feedback really pushes me to do the best work I can. Even if I disagree with him, it is an opportunity to reflect on why he didn’t like something and push myself to come up with different solutions.

Don’t you feel lucky to have Thoraya?

Hisham: Very much so. Thoraya is an extremely skilled literary translator. She has the depth of vision to perceive all the embedded connotations and meanings in words and phrases; and the ability to eloquently transform them into the English language while maintaining the flow of the original Arabic, and (at the same time) not making the text read oddly in the eyes of the native English speaker. My only wish is that she puts that special skill to practice more often: she rarely allocates time to translate and write. Life is too financially demanding and translation is not financially rewarding; I understand that one has to make a living elsewhere, that applies to me too as an independent writer who makes his living not from writing (practically impossible in Arab countries) but from being a dental surgeon. But with the rare talent Thoraya has, I’d say she must allocate more time to produce more translations.

Should a reader read this in a linear manner? Or I don’t mean should, exactly, but did you intend that? Imagine that?

Hisham: I prefer that The Perception of Meaning (and all my other books as well) be read as a “whole,” but not necessarily in a linear fashion. The numbers I gave for each piece (1 – 78) instead of title is to allude that this book in its entirety is a corpus, or even a continuum to my previous and later works which engage the same themes. But one can read The Perception of Meaning from back to front; I actually encourage such a reading. Recently a reader wrote me about how reading one of my stories paragraph by paragraph from bottom to top had a different impact. I have worked on that “labyrinth-like” cyclic forms in my forth book Inevitable Preludes to a Stalled Disintegration not yet available in translation, but some of its stories are forthcoming in different publications. In those stories, one can juggle the different parts of a story and read it in any order, yet it will maintain its full integrity.

About “History Will Be Made on This Couch.” I can rarely read anything literary about January 2011, but this was different; it was not just re-centered and made fresh with jumps in language and imagery, but also came through a specific character rather than an imagined collective or type. When did you write it?

excerpt2Hisham: I wrote it just as the people were crossing the Qasr el-Nil bridge en masse into Tahrir square on Friday, January 28, 2011. I was sitting on my couch glued to the TV like almost all of the people in the region, watching this glorious turn of events come to be. The voice of the imam’s khutba at Friday prayers reaching me through the mosques’ speakers gave me the chills. It re-reminded me of our stagnant point, the paradox, the way religious thinking tends to confiscate questioning, creativity, mobility; yet there were Molotov cocktails, barricades, people of all walks and ages reclaiming the streets, the bridges, the squares, and the country; fighting off decades of oppression and decadence. Those people were fighting “our” battle while we watched them on TV, and God’s voice/ the imam’s voice/ the tyrant’s voice coming through the speakers reminded me of the long path ahead.

“History Will Not Be Made on This Couch” is the oppressed eulogy of helplessness and inertia; the death omen for the careless and individualistic’ from the perspective of the individual, the personal.  It was also a prediction I elaborated in an interview with Poets and Writers around that time: “the Arab Spring will soon see autumn.” because of all the unresolved contradictions at play, the basic elements of the contradictions are embedded in the story.

The lawyer’s disclaimer says that any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. But do you, despite the lawyer’s warnings, pull material from life? Is the old woman and the canned corn from a lived moment?

excerptHisham: The old woman with the cans of corn kernels is real flesh and blood and was sitting in a Beyazit Square in Istanbul when I pulled her (or she pulled me) into another dimension of existence.

I approach writing as a means to express other possible histories of an event, thus the imagination becomes the tool to recall and recreate all the unseen, unnoticed, or “unperceived” paths, turns or developments.

Reality (as we see it and experience it in our daily life) is the source of all that is imagined. If I imagined a tree planted in the sea with heads of children hanging from it as fruits and sheets of gold as leaves, we can clearly see that this imaginary tree is composed of elements pulled from our life and the way we perceive it. Metaphors, similes, symbols and other literary tools work on the same basis. Even abstraction has its reference in the “real.”

When the “real” is so present, so pressing, and more surreal than anything that could be imagined; my answer to it would be violent literary engagement: the “real” is re-read, questioned, probed, destroyed, pulled, twisted and turned; examined for every possibility, for every possible history, every possible reading. It is from that violent engagement that the old lady with cans of corn kernels will transforms every night (in some sort of a silent protest) to a pigeon, and sleeps with her fellow pigeons under the bridge, where humans would still pass her by, with no attention.

What do you both think about it as a bilingual text, sharing the book, rather than either standing alone?

Hisham: Coming out in a bilingual edition is one of the important aspects of The Perception of Meaning. I find it important that for this kind of writing the Arabic text is available to give access to the original structure and form, which will make an interesting experience for English readers who have knowledge of Arabic. The bilingual edition will also serve as a tool for teaching the Arabic language using contemporary texts and modern references.

Finally, and more importantly, I think this format sheds more light on the role of translation and the translator. In a translated text, the translator is usually absent or neglected and the author is embedded in the translation. In the bilingual format, the author is independently present in the source text inside the book, and the translator’s presence is thus intensified especially when a reader (who is able) has the chance to read both texts and compare; and in Thoraya’s case, the reader will have the chance to appreciate the work she has done.

Thoraya: Well since the book is titled The Perception of Meaning, there is something very “meta” about the fact that the translation faces the source text. Which is pretty cool.