An Author-Translator Conversation: Donia Kamal’s ‘Cigarette Number Seven’ and Archiving Romantic Ideals
Cigarette Number Seven is Donia Kamal’s second novel, for which she won the Sawiris Emerging Authors prize, three years after it was originally published in 2012. It has now been translated to English by Nariman Youssef and is set for an October release by Hoopoe Fiction. As Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) comes to a close, we look at one of the works by women forthcoming this fall.
By Nariman Youssef and Donia Kamal
Here, author and translator – friends who have never actually met – discuss some of Cigarette Number Seven’s themes, genesis, and translation.
Nariman Youssef: I first read your novel in 2013. I was personally going through a very low time – both in reaction to political/public events and on a personal level – and it was strangely refreshing to read something that was set in 2011 and that reflected that mood. I read it as a novel about defeat – political and romantic. Is that how you intended it?
Donia Kamal: It’s not consciously about defeat. It’s about choices, unforgettable moments, unfinished dreams and projects, including that of the revolution. But if there was one concrete motivation for me to write, it was that through everything that had happened since January 2011, with every small or big development, I’d find myself wondering what my father would have done if he were alive. What advice would he have given me? How revolutionary would he have been? The questions haunted me, and I needed to finally sit down and explore them.
NY: The relationship between Nadia and her father is clearly central to the story, closely followed by her relationships to Zein and Ali. I was really struck by the near-idealization of the three main male characters.
DK: Well, Ali in particular was not supposed to be idealized at all. I was surprised that it came across that way. Much of the novel deals with the heartbreak that he caused, so I was really surprised when readers told me they sympathized with him. There’s a house-cleaning scene that no one seemed to like. Several people – including the late Radwa Ashour, whose opinion I cherish – told me was it too harsh because it can be read to represent Ali as the evil that needs to be purged out of Nadia’s life, and he doesn’t come across as deserving that. But for some reason that scene was the most important for me to keep, and also the most difficult to write.
NY: I could actually empathize with Nadia’s need to purge her life of the attachment to Ali in order to move on. But could people’s sympathetic reaction to Ali himself be related to the fact that we only see him through Nadia’s eyes, and Nadia up until the end only sees him through the eyes of love?
DK: Yes. There is a lot of romanticism in that novel that, five years later, I don’t relate to at all. It was a very romantic moment. You know, so many people in my circles got married or decided to have children during that year. That was the mood.
NY: You have just echoed what Nadia says when she tries to rationalize her relationship with Ali: There was so much passion in the air—demonstrations and intensity everywhere you look—and we must have simply been susceptible to falling in love. Nothing was stable, and love was the opposite of stability.
DK: There was also an insistence on hope. That part of me that is manifested in Nadia’s character – and also in some of her friends – could only see the good in everyone, or perhaps believed that if we keep trying, the good will have to come out. They were moved by romantic ideals, whether in love or revolution.
NY: The tone of the book does not come across as celebrating those ideals but as mourning them.
DK: I wrote the whole thing in the summer of 2012, in 3 months, with very little editing or reworking. If it had been a year earlier, I’m sure the tone would have been different, but by that point, I think I was writing to explore certain thoughts and feelings then tidy them away. In a sense, it was an act of archiving the experiences of the previous year and the idealistic thinking that accompanied them.
NY: Is that perhaps why the cleaning scene was important? I can see a parallel there between how you talk about tidying away certain experiences, and Nadia’s diligent cleaning of her flat as part of dealing with her heartbreak.
DK: You might have a point there. I was also moving house at the time, so the activities of cleaning and tidying were part of my daily reality. I had already started paying rent on a new flat, but simply could not move before I finished writing. For much of the time, I was sitting on the couch surrounded by boxes.
NY: The same couch in Nadia’s studio?
DK: The very same. In the novel, the couch is the place where Nadia observes the world and reflects on it, and it’s also the place where she develops as a character. I place Nadia on the couch to trace her development and to keep track of how she unfolds and grows as a person. Some readers have noted how all Nadia’s contemplations and inner monologues are expressed while she is on the couch, i.e. in her cocoon/sanctuary. It is where she takes what happens in her world, and makes sense of it in order to move forward. The moment she leaves the couch marks her move towards a new stage in her life.
In real life, that couch was the only piece of furniture I took with me when I moved, though I don’t really sit on it much anymore.
NY: I’m very interested in spatial representation in your book. What stayed with me most after the first read was the immediacy of the later scenes in Nadia’s flat: the hours spent sitting on the couch, staring at the ceiling, pacing the seven steps from one wall to the other – it felt claustrophobic, like a temporal and spatial cage that the narrator –and reader—could end up stuck in forever. Contrast that with, for instance, the spaciousness of Nadia’s grandmother flat, where she was also confined, but where the way her childhood memory recalls the different rooms makes a move from the bedroom to the kitchen sound like an adventure.
DK: I generally give a lot of attention to places when I write. The grandmother’s flat, the family house in the country side, Nadia’s studio flat. Each home is a kind of sanctuary, filled with personal details, and I’m fascinated by how each place we call home will one day be filled with other people’s details – layers and layers of memories and private experiences.
NY: Could you tell me more about the idea of archiving romantic ideals?
DK: I have always been fascinated by the idea of archiving moments, the moments that you know you don’t want to forget; those important glimpses that your memory might trick you into perceiving as something else after a while. That’s why I try to write those down; sometimes I’m lucky and the moment I write turns into a big project – a novel for instance; and other times the moment is too huge or too elusive to contain in a book. But in all cases, I try to keep a written archive of as many moments as I can. It is astonishing how our memories can play tricks on us and alter our perceptions of our own experiences, and amidst the noise of everything happening around us in the world, I want to preserve my original perception of the moments that matter.
NY: And what is it like to revisit an archive years later?
DK: I must admit it feels somewhat alien to me. Anyone who got to know me in the last few years would find it difficult to believe that I could at some point personally relate to the ideas and feeling expressed in Cigarette Number Seven. I also wonder what it was like for you to read it again now, 3 or more years after your first reading. When I learned you were translating it, I was sure that you wouldn’t experience it in the same way.
NY: I remember getting in touch with you when I first read it and telling you how much I personally related to the narrator’s state of mind. And when I worked on it in the past months, it was almost like relating to something from my own past. Translation is a slow form of labour – you stay close to the text for long hours at a time – and that means that I can’t ignore the thoughts it calls up from the recesses of my own memory. I’ll tag you in a Facebook post I wrote earlier this year, when I was working on the first draft of the translation. It was about finally daring to remember details from 2011, and how rereading your book helped me realize how far our present lives have moved on from that moment.
On the topic of translation, I wanted to ask you how you feel about the novel gaining a new readership in English, more than five years after you were done with the archiving that it entailed.
DK: I have really mixed feelings about that. It’s like a rebirth that I did not really ask for. The book addressed a certain need for me when I wrote it. Even when it won the Sawiris Emerging Authors award in 2015, it validated what I could still perceive as its significance for readers at the time. But for me personally, the moment of that need and that significance has passed, so I guess it will now take on a life of its own.
NY: The theme of unfinished stories is recurring in the novel. One of my favorite lines comes when Nadia is rummaging through her father’s drawers and says: All the stories were beautiful, even if most were unfinished. I’m thinking that perhaps all stories are unfinished and the only way to make any story whole is to write it. And then perhaps, if translation is a form of rewriting, each translation would make the story whole in a new way.
DK: One thing I want to add to that is that Cigarette Number Seven, in dealing with the unfinished dream of one woman, is mainly about the idea that everything – experiences, emotions, attempts to change the world— moves in cycles that never reach a clear end or resolution. There can be a lot of pain in that. At the same time, maybe we just need to accept that most of our stories are unfinished, yet find ways to embrace the transient beauty in them.
Cigarette Number Seven is forthcoming in October from Hoopoe Fiction.