Must-read Classics By Women: 6 by Radwa Ashour

Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour (1946-2014) is one of only 12 women writers to have made the Arab Writers Union’s list of the Top 105 Arabic Novels of the twentieth century. She makes our Women in Translation Month list of must-read women authors:

Signing “Heavier than Radwa,” 2013, not yet available in English.

As Marina Warner wrote after Ashour’s death in 2014, “Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it.”

Ashour made the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105” list with her celebrated Granadathe first of a trilogy, translated by William Granara.  The novel interleaves the story of Granada during the time of Christopher Columbus — a time of extreme religious persecution — but is also a story of books and book-lovers, and the bookbinder Abu Jaafar.

Forthcoming in translation is Ashour’s The Journeytranslated by Michelle Hartman and set to be released by Interlink Books. The Journey is Ashour’s memoirs of 1973-1975, her years doing a PhD in Massachusetts on African-American Literature, and they work to tie together struggles in the US, Palestine, and Egypt, much like Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement does from a US vantage. It’s a pioneering look at the United States through the eyes of one of Egypt’s major writers, and you can read an excerpt here.

The short but lovely Siraaj, trans. Barbara Romaine, is markedly different from Radwa Ashour’s modern histories: It’s the story of a doomed revolt against a despotic sultan and is set on an imaginary island near Yemen at the close of the nineteenth century. It is fable-like history or historical fable, beautifully told, rendered in clear, warm English by Romaine. This novel is easy to love.

Spectres was also translated Barbara Romaine — a translation for which she was rightly recognized. This is two books: a beautiful meta-memoir twined with an echoing fictional character. Winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize and a runner-up for the Banipal translation prize, the book alternates between the stories of Radwa and Shagar: two women born the same day, one a professor of literature, one of history.

Blue Lorries, also translated by Barbara Romaine, is a generational novel, of exile and politics, of Egypt then and now. It follows the half-French, half-Egyptian Nada and is a story of what activism means in the context of a human life (and what human life means in the context of activism). You can read an excerpt online. 

Last, one of Ashour’s most popular novels was The Woman from Tantoura, translated by Kay Heikkinen. A historical family novel, Tantoura follows a Palestinian woman from pre-1948 through multiple exiles: in Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai. Much of the novel’s heartbreak — and despite herself, Ashour is excellent at heartbreak — is the mother’s fraught relationship with her exiled children. Although it’s also an examination of coming to grips with seeing events such as Sabra and Shatila from afar, a large part of the novel’s charm is the relationship between the author and her three very different sons.