ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey is working on a profile of Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli, whose novel Summer with the Enemy was shortlisted yesterday for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction:
Unfortunately, it looks as though the answers to these five questions — about Ujayli’s life as a reader — won’t make it into the profile.
Do you remember which books first inspired & delighted you, when you started reading as a child and a young woman?
Shahla Ujayli: I started with the library in the house, and these books were written for adults, of course: the poetry ofAl-Akhtal as-Saghir, Nizar Qabbani, and the work of my uncle the well- known novelist and writer Dr. Abdel Salaam Ujayli. I was very moved by his stories and novels and books of travel literature, and I loved his novel The Immersed People a lot and I read it over and over. Then I read the books my mother gave me.
Then I moved to the work of Ihsan Abdel Quddous, Naguib Mahfouz, and the Syrian writer Fadil al-Siba’i, then to the masterpieces of Russian, French, and English world literature. Of course my family are all readers, and books were available to all of us—the library in our house was full.
Are there books, stories, or poems you go back and re-read, and re-read again?
SU: I’m trained as an academic and a university professor, as well as an essayist, and in order to talk about a topic, I have to read up on it. In order to write novels, I prefer to read a lot and forget a lot—to mix methods in my own particular way. A while ago, I was asked to write a letter toChekhov, so I had to reread his stories and some of his plays. The problem with re-reading is the limitations of time and the sheer number of beautiful books to be read. From among classic novels, I’ve twice read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I’ve repeatedly read the plays of Aeschylus, and always go back to reading the Iliad, Shakespeare, the poetry of European and Eastern romanticists: Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Goethe, Hafez Shirazi… I often return to Walt Whitman, and often refer to the Book of Songs, Enjoyment and Conviviality by al-Tawhidi,the Holy Books, and Mutanabbi and the Mu’allaqat, as well as Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani—I’ve memorized a lot of their poems. The world would be difficult and miserable without these to read!
You are also an academic & literary critic! Who do you think are the most interesting Arabic writers working now? The most interesting Syrian writers?
SU: As for Arab writers, there are in fact many, both old and new, but I love the worlds of Ibrahim Abdel Meguid very much, and Raouf Mosad, and of course Tayeb Salih. I’ve loved Radwa Ashour, and Amir Tag Elsir, and Inaam Kachachi, and from Saudi Arabia Taher al-Zahrani, and from the Emirates Sultan al-Ameemi, and from Yemen Ali al-Muqri, and from Morocco Ahmed al-Madeeni, and from Palestine Mahmoud Shukair, and from Jordan Samiha Khrais.
As for Syria, I enjoy the books of Nihad Sirees, Faisal Khartash, Khalil Sweileh, Khaled Khalifa, and Maha Hassan.
When you are judging a literary prize — such as a prize for novels — what do you look for? How do you decide what is “best”?
SU: What concerns me as a critic is the novelist’s ability to build a world of its own—a world with all its interactions, relationships, and contradictions—as well as the fates of its individual characters. I find it regrettable when I run across novels with a childish tendency toward poetic language, where all the characters speak in metaphors, analogies, and adages. Who said all the characters in a novel were there for wisdom and lessons! Each genre of novel has its particular requirements and particularities of language, its own sort of eloquence. The beauty of a novel lies in its ability to construct a narrative that builds a world and a set of relationships, such that the audience can recognize through it a meaning or meanings of existence.
If you were going to suggest one novel to be translated from Arabic to English, what would it be? And why?
SU: This is difficult! Maybe Adagio by Ibrahim Abdelmaguid, because the sorrowful and the clever narrative is well-matched with its structure. There is Ostrich Egg by Raoof Musad; it is a sometimes shocking confrontation with our thoughts and manners towards those who are different in religion, sector, and sexuality. There is al-Fayomi by Taher Al Zahrani, which is rare and has the very specific atmosphere of hunting at the mountains of Saudi Arabia, with a historical narrative line, but focusing on hot issues, like the war in Yemen, terrorism, and non-stereotypical relationships.
Translation by M Lynx Qualey, except for the last question, answered in English.