As part of our ongoing Women in Translation Month series, a talk with Iraqi author Maysaloon Hadi about her latest novel, translation, promotion, and writing for young readers:
By Hend Saeed
Maysaloon Hadi is an Iraqi author with 15 Novels, 10 collections of short stories, and several books for young adults. She says that, from a young age, she loved reading and writing, and that she published a few articles while still an undergraduate. After that, she worked as editor in a number of Iraqi literary magazines, Little Encyclopedia and Alf Ba’a.
Her books have been shortlisted for and have won a number of prizes: The Throne and the Creek العرش والجدول won the 2015 Katara prize for unpublished works; The Bride’s Tea شاي العروس was shortlisted for Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2011; and Prophecy of Pharaoh won a Bashraheel Award for the best Arabic novel in 2008.
Two of her books have been translated into English: Prophecy of Pharaoh نبوءة فرعون ، published in 2011, and The Throne and the Creek, by Katara Publishing.
Last week, she launched her latest novel, Mohammed’s Brothers, at Al Orfali Gallery in Amman, in cooperation with her publisher, Thakera Publishing & Distributors (Baghdad).
Hend Saeed: Congratulations on your new novel. Since today we’re celebrating the launch of Mohammed’s Brothers اخوة محمد, can you tell us what the readers can expect from the novel?
Maysaloon Hadi: The novel is based in an alley in Baghdad, where all the men have the name of Mohammed, except for Maria’s husband Abdulmalak. I used Mohammed not because it is related to Islam, but because it is the most common name in the world. Through the characters, we see the presence of those who are absent, and the beauty and the hope of the alley, because there is reality, and there is what should be, for those who want happiness can reach it.
HS: Two of your books have been translated to English. What has this changed for you? Do you think translation is important for Arab authors, and why?
MH: Yes, translation is very important to the writer, but translation alone is not enough. What’s more important than translation is marketing—and the disappointment comes from the [lack of] advertising and marketing for the translated book.
For example, Khaled Hosseini, who is from Afghanistan, and who wrote about the American war against Afghanistan, which was similar to the American invasion of Iraq–Hosseini managed to reach an international audience, not only because he writes in English, but because he is close to the publishing and marketing worlds in the USA. There, they treat literature as a trade that requires professional people around the author, such as literary agents and editors and publishers who market the book well after it has been published. Unfortunately we in Arab countries don’t have all this support.
Arabic novels goes into the unknown after it they have been printed, and only chance takes them to prizes and then to fame.
Translator Denys Johnson-Davies, who had long experience working with publishers and Arabic cultural associations, said the reason for the shortfalls in Arabic book marketing was that “they believe that publishing is to have a printing press to publish the books and ignore the core of the publishing process, in its new meaning, which is around distribution. This means distributing the book to as wide an audience as possible.”
As for my personal experience: My short story which was translated and published in Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology, reached students and academics rather than readers, and where it did, it goes to the personal efforts of Dr Shakir Mustafa, a professor at an American university who translated my stories. This lead to my invitation to Harvard and Boston University.
As for The Throne and the Creek, which won Katara Prize and then was translated to English and French by Katara, I have no information about its distribution or if it distributed in the market or not. The Pharaoh Prophecy is available on Amazon.
HS: In one of your interviews, you said the educated person is the person who sees beauty in life. How does this affect your writing?
MH: When the Arabophone author writes, he or she doesn’t know who will read their book. They write and publish their books as if they are throwing a letter in a bottle into the sea, without knowing where It will reach.
In the last few years, a change has happened, because of social media channels. These channels have helped to build up the relationship between the reader and the writer through the increase in the number of book clubs on social media and online book sales and delivery and connecting with authors online. Also, book signings have helped to close the gap between the reader and the writer.
In Iraq in particular, I have noticed that the number of readers has increased since the opening of online book sales and book deliveries, and also a good number of young readers write to me via my facebook page.
HS: In the last few years, we’ve saw an uptick in Young Adult books in Arabic, and you published YA science fiction. What do you think about the Young Adult book market?
MH: My most recent book for young adults, I Saw Them Alone, was a collection of short prose, and most of them are science fiction. I published my first young adult book in the 80’s, and these books were very popular in Iraq and helped to build the young adults’ awareness and taste for reading.
The publishing of these books was supported by the Children’s House of Culture in Baghdad, where a good number of artists, editors, and authors used to work, but their role has decreased since 2003. At the same time, the role of private-sector children and young adult publishers has increased, but most of them are commercial rather than educational and beautiful as they used to be.
HS: You write about Baghdad—about its identity, wars, and losses—and you have a strong feel for human emotions. Is that because you live in Iraq, and can we say that you are documenting what is happening in Iraq through your characters?
MH: It isn’t documenting—the author is different from the historian. The author is required to give a picture of what is happening, but they write around the reality. For me The Iraqi House is closest to my heart, and there, the place is one of the main characters. In The World is Missing One, the house was the stage for all the conflicted feelings, from which we know all the terrible and horrible things happening outside the house.
In The Jewels of the Earth, the main character Naji Abdul Alsalam doesn’t survive when he loses his compass and get lost in the nowhere. In Black Eyes, a number of houses in one alley present a panorama of Iraq in the 1990s, the time of sanctions, while Prophecy of Pharaoh was inspired by the story of the Pharaoh with Egyptian children.
More about Prophecy of Pharaoh.
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translator, life consultant, and book reviewer.