This interview was originally conducted by our Algeria Editor Nadia Ghanem in French and translated into English. In it, Ghanem and novelist Zehira Houfani discuss what led the author to and away from the detective genre:
By Nadia Ghanem
Zehira Houfani is an Algerian writer who started publishing in the 1980s. She published two detective novels, among which is Les pirates du desert (Pirates of the Desert, 1986), set in Tamanrasset, an oasis city in southern Algeria. Few women have written crime fiction in Algeria, in Arabic or in French. Zehira Houfani might have been the first to have published a detective novel in DZ.
Houfani now lives in Canada, and from there, she kindly answered a few questions about her experience as a writer in Algeria at the time, and about her detective novel Pirates of the Desert.
What brought you to crime fiction initially and what inspired you to write not one detective novel but four of them, two published and two manuscripts?
Zehira Houfani: I guess my readings led me to it. This was at least the case for my first novel. Later, two factors encouraged me to pursue this route. The first was the interest I began to discover I had exploring various ills affecting society using a genre that was both narrative and dynamic. The second factor came from the encouragement of my then-editor, the director of the National Enterprise for Literature (ENAL) who liked the initiative, knowing that I was the only woman author in a genre not very present in Algeria at the time.
Following the publication of Pirates of the Desert in 1986, I began writing Rendez-vous fatal (Fatal Meeting) which in turn was well-received after publication. This time, I fully embarked on this new passion, and wrote a fourth novel. Unfortunately, the economic and political context in Algeria then was taking a turn for the worse with falling petrol prices, a situation that had disastrous consequences. State publishing, as with every other state sector, entered a serious crisis. Later, the entire country began to experience great tragedies. With the October 1988 protests and the black decade that began in ’90s priorities changed. These events put a brutal end to my experience as a writer of detective novels and I found myself with two unpublished manuscripts in my drawers.
Was it difficult to find a publishing house? How did ENAL initially react when they discovered a woman writing detective fiction?
ZH: No, I met with no difficulties attached to the fact that this book was detective fiction. On the contrary, I was lucky to have found an editor who was opened-minded and whose spirit fed my own motivations. He was very interested in my project for detective fiction produced by women. But having said that, publishing in Algeria generally speaking was a nightmare for authors. When the National Publishing and Distribution House (SNED) was still in place, it could take years for a book to be published.
I myself had to wait about 4 years to see «L’incomprise » (A Woman Misunderstood) published, which I had submitted before my detective novel.
In Pirates of the Desert, you chose two men as main characters, why didn’t you choose a woman?
ZH:I would have liked to, but at the time the context was not right, it seems to me. Algeria in the 70s and 80s did not have women characters who could play this role in a detective novel. At that time, the percentage of working women was very low and those who held decision-making posts were rare. We mustn’t forget that our independence was only 20 years old then, and that when we started out, 95% of the population was illiterate.
Having said that, I think I would have reached that stage if my writing experience in the genre had continued. With the evolution of society and with the education of women, the transition would have come naturally.
In this same novel, the story is set in Tamanrasset. Why did this city inspire you?
ZH:I am afraid this is not going to be a very exciting answer. I got my inspiration from articles in Algerian newspapers reporting on contraband in this city. I didn’t visit Tamanrasset for Pirates of the Desert, but I spent time researching to find the relevant facts that would help me describe the city and the life of its inhabitants.
What detective novels would you recommend to us? Is there an author or a novel in particular that has marked you?
ZH:I stopped reading them a while back but I used to go to libraries and bookshops and pick up titles randomly. In the genre, I’d recommend Strangers on a Train, and of course Agatha Christie whose sense of intrigue I so admired. I read her hoping I would learn from her to one day become an Algerian detective novelist.
Nadia is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor and a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.