‘Arab Women Voice New Realities’: Escapism ‘Seems To Be On Our Minds’

Arab Women Voice New Realities (@ArabWomenAntho) — an anthology that brings together works by twenty-seven different women writers — launched November 24 in Beirut. The anthology features writing that ranges from the experimental to the straightforward. Co-editor Dima Nasser answered questions about the project:

What was the germ of this project? How & why did it begin?

Dima Nasser: I approached Charlotte Hamaoui, managing director at Turning Point, with the idea of putting together a collection of short stories by Arab women in the summer of 2016. When I found there was enthusiasm on her part, I then asked Roseanne Khalaf if she would be my co-editor since she had editorial and academic experience teaching creative writing and working on her own anthologies (Transit Beirut, 2003 and Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, 2006). I was keen on exploring the theme of “new” personal and political realities being lived and confronted by women in the Arab world and the diaspora in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the wars and revolutions the region has undergone on multiple levels in the new century. Perhaps I should say here that we were interested in finding out whether there was anything new about the lives being led in today’s world as opposed to the end of the 1990s. So we decided to put out a general call for submissions in English and Arabic, wait and see what kinds of stories we might attract, and then decide on whether to go through with the project. Luckily, the stories we received were diverse and rich enough to pursue and build a project around.

How many of the pieces were written new for the book? I have a press release but not a table of contents — how many of them are fiction, nonfiction, poetry?

DN: All of the pieces were written for the book. This is something we had stipulated in our call. There are a couple cases in which the stories are translations of Arabic originals which had been featured online in Arabic magazines, such as Inaam Kachachi’s “Nude in Wazirriya of Baghdad,” but they had never been translated and published in book form.

The collection has been divided according to theme, not genre. But the stories are also diverse in terms of genre: most of them are based in nonfiction. We have two experimental prose pieces (The Half-Life by Hind Shoufani and To Myself by Hafsa Bouheddou), two diurnal memoir essays (Grace by Zena el-Khalil and Here and There by Rima Rantisi) as well as a diary memoir (Silent Letters by Gabi Toufiq). The rest are more or less short stories as we tend to think of them, but written in various styles (for e.g. Mantra by Nisreen Sinjab is written purely in stream of consciousness).

What did you want to capture in the range of writers and voices? How did you choose the writers?

DN: We wanted to capture the nuances in voice that come with being of different ages, experiences, nationalities, dialects, and religions. We knew the one commonality would be gender, but even that category would prove unstable as a narrative point because of the vastly different circumstances these women daily navigate. We also wanted to capture the different styles of writing that might filter through having different levels of experience with the art of writing. In other words, some of our chosen writers were professionals who make make their living as writers (Hanan Al-Shaykh, Zena El-Khalil, Mishka Mojabber, Irada Al-Jubouri, etc.) and others had limited experience with writing and a few were not writers by trade and had never been published. We wanted it this way to reflect as much diversity as possible.

Who do you hope will read this collection? Who do you imagine as the audience(s)? What sorts of discussions do you imagine around the book and the works within?

DN: The collection is already being asked for by university libraries in the Arab world and in the US. So I imagine it will attract scholars and academics interested in the same questions we started out with, scholars of gender studies, but also Arab and non-Arab readers who are generally interested in the Arab woman question.

Could you clarify what you mean by that?

Photo of contributors from the launch event, courtesy Turning Point.

DN: What I mean by the Arab woman question is what the position of the Arab woman in today’s world is, and and how that may vary across subcultures and ethnic groups in the Arab world, across socioeconomic, linguistic, and political spectra, and what the Arab woman can do/is doing to overcome the immobilizing conditions of what is still a patriarchal world order.

What do you enjoy about anthologies, as a literary form? What do they bring us that single-author collections don’t?

DN: I think anthologies simultaneously provide breadth and depth regarding a topic. They obviously bring to light multiple perspectives and variegated aspects that a collection of stories by a single author wouldn’t necessarily bring. However, there is a risk that any anthology be deemed a thorough representation of any literary or cultural phenomenon, which is something I warn against in the co-editor’s note of our anthology.

Are there particular recurring themes or motifs that stood out to you, that surprised you?

DN: As I mentioned, we decided to organize the book in terms of recurring themes and they are: bold journeys, shattered lives, magic moments, courageous voices, marriage and its discontents, a place called home, body language, and disturbing reflections.

I would say the theme that surprised me the most was magic moments as it brings together stories in which heroines deal with problems by escaping into memories of childhood innocence and adventure. This is a motif that I was not expecting especially because of the current trend in literary and artistic production to approach reality in an almost journalistic and documentary-like mode. Escapism, however, still seems to be on our minds.

I notice that all the translators are women. Was this a conscious choice?

Not at all. But I had already been in touch with Michelle Hartman and Rula Baalbaki over translating two of the pieces. Our other translators were recommended by Hartman.

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