Lebanese novelist Jana Elhassan found both her second and third novels on the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Her third, The Ninety-ninth Floor, was translated to English by Michelle Hartman and published by Interlink last month:
Also last month, Elhassan gave an interview to IPAF organizers about the English edition of her book. Elhassan recently moved to the US, and organizers asked her if she’d write about New York differently now:
But in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, I was not writing about the US and immersing myself in the society of this country. I wasn’t writing about America from the inside. I wrote about it as it related to the character of Majd and as a place of outsiders. And New York is still like that to me. Perhaps if I had been in America when I wrote the novel, I would have written a completely different book about something else. But if I wouldn’t change anything in it now, even if I could, because every novel or text is connected to a particular framework of time and place. If we write the same text half an hour later, it might emerge in a different form.
ArabLit’s chief editor also published a review of The Ninety-ninth Floor, a book with a great deal of promise that meanders too much in its imaginary NYC, in The National. It opens:
When Jana Elhassan’s The Ninety-Ninth Floor appeared in 2014, she was already a literary wunderkind. Her second novel, Me, She and the Other Women (2013) made the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction when she was just 28. Two years later, when The Ninety-Ninth Floor was shortlisted for the prize, she was still the youngest on the list.
The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Elhassan’s first novel to be translated into English, by the distinguished Michelle Hartman. The novel, like its towering title, promises a sweeping story of star-crossed love, staged between the gritty violence of Lebanon’s Civil War and one of New York City’s richest, tallest buildings.
This staging evokes the populist romances of Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostaghanemi: Majd is a poor Palestinian refugee crippled in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, committed by Phalangist militia. Hilda is from a privileged Christian family in rural Lebanon, the beloved daughter of a powerful Phalangist leader.
Majd and Hilda meet in New York City in the late 1990s, far from their families. Hilda came to dance while Majd runs a nebulous self-made business. This is not a real New York City, but a mythological one: of skyscrapers and tunnels, wealth and trash, where people can forget their pasts and start anew.