Lebanese Novelist Alexandra Chreiteh on the Arabic Literary Landscape

What are the most exciting things happening on the Arabic literary landscape? In the first part of a two-part interviewRachael Daum and acclaimed Lebanese novelist Alexandra Chreiteh discussed urinary-tract infections, menstrual blood, and language. In this second part, they talk about the role of magical realism, young authors, and minority writing:

By Rachael Daum

Chreiteh accepting an award.
Chreiteh accepting an award.

What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings?

Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature.

And there’s a lot of young Arabic[-language] writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. I think she has a bold, unique voice. I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go.

So what are you working on now? I know you are a doctoral candidate at Yale University — what’s your research in?

My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories. 

Do you think that there is an Arabic avant-garde? I was reading an article the other day about how Arabic surrealism (which seems to be on the rise in Egypt) is a direct effect of colonialism. What do you think about that?

Well, I think it’s important to first draw a line between surrealism and magical realism. Surrealism in Arabic literature came from intellectuals in France, from people who came to know this branch and the artistic relationships between them, and brought it over to Arabic-speaking countries. As a result, there seems to be a first-world vs. third-world relationship.

ghostThere was a discussion in intellectual circles which exploded after Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s winning the Nobel Prize, like this placed Latin American literature in the realm of world literature — where would Arabic literature stand? And then [Naguib] Mahfouz won Nobel Prize in 1988, and we started questioning the role of Arabic literature within world literature. This was then seen as a chance for cultural exchange — there was a relationship, a solidarity in third world countries: there are certain similarities in South America and the Middle East, and this lead to a chance for literary exchange, and a  chance to be taken translated and taken seriously in world literature.

Secondly, in incorporating magical realism into the Arabic model, it was honestly less to do with post-colonialism and third world solidarity, and more with post-national consciousness. Engaging literature kind of broke down, became more individualistic, and the pan-Arabic mentality kind of didn’t work anymore.

Magical realism became something more to do with dealing with minority identities and the history of people who did not benefit from national identities and literature. Because minorities always get placed against nationalism — this was a chance to better break this down. Surrealism simply doesn’t deal with identity in the same way. And of course magical realism doesn’t break completely with colonialism — the ghost of colonialism is always there — but it just presents a different set of priorities.

Alexandra Chreiteh is the author of two novels, Always Coca-Cola and Ali and his Russian Mother. She is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her work has been translated to English and German.

Rachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.