Best-selling Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi’s Mama Hessa’s Mice is forthcoming in Sawad Hussain’s translation in November of this year:
By Hend Saeed
It was to my great fortune that Saud Alsanousi took part in the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which gave me the chance to sit and talk to him about translation and his experience with non-Arabic readers.
Alsanousi is best known in English for his novel The Bamboo Stalk, which won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and was translated to English by Jonathan Wright, but his Mama Hessa’s Mice was a best-seller across the region.
In Mama Hessa‘s Mice, you played with the tenses, there is a sudden change in tenses; from past to present, was that intentionally done?
Saud Alsanousi: I wrote the first draft in the past tense. But when I start rewriting and editing it, I found that it was better to use two different tenses to differentiate between the chapters in The Fire Inheritance, where the events are in the past, and chapters in Happening Now.
Thus, I re-wrote the Happening Now chapters using the present tense to describe events moment by moment, such that the reader and the narrator are at the same distance from events, time-wise. That’s why I mentioned the timing of the events. For example, when the narrator says, “There’s a fire in the building,” neither the narrator nor the reader knows what will happen in the next line.
As for the invasion chapter, I intentionally used the pronoun you, as for instance: “You went to Mama Hessa, and she said…” Here, I used “you” for technical reasons, because the main character was only twelve years old at the time of the 1990 invasion, and it wouldn’t be convincing if the boy were to narrate and talk about political issues that were larger than his understanding, such as the issue of the borders between Iraq and Kuwait, oil prices, and political speeches. I worked around this problem by writing the invasion chapter using you, as if the narrator — who is now in his forties — were talking to his younger self.
Two of your books have been translated into English, and the latter will be published soon. What was your experience working with the translators and what did — or didn’t — you enjoy about the process?
SA: Working with the translators Jonathan Wright and Sawad Hussain helped me to acknowledge the issues around how Western readers will receive my book. I enjoyed the questions related to our culture and heritage, or other things that we don’t focus on For example, Jonathan focused on some things that I wrote about women, and his questions come from a Western point of view. These aren’t like the usual questions we ask, and that helped me to understand and recognize the different ways of thinking and the types of questions Westerners think of.
Do you think that the picture you presented in the Arabic was fully transformed into the English?
SA: To a certain extend, yes, although I haven’t read my works after they’ve been translated. I have limited English, but I give the book to some people who I trust, and who’ve read the Arabic version, and I listen to their views.
Most of the time, in translation, the idea of the work gets to the Western reader, although not to the same level as it is in its original language.
The work loses something in translation, such as the poems in Mama Hessa’s Mice, which were impossible to translate at the same level as they are, such as might convey the spirit of these poems. But these losses doesn’t affect the Western reader, who doesn’t have access to the Arabic version of the book.
What’s the effect of the translation on you as a writer?
SS.: First, I’d like to note that there’s a misconception about translated authors. People believe that an author will be internationally famous as soon as their books are translated, but that is not necessarily true. Being successful — and being global — are different from one another, even if the author has a few books translated to another languages.
But the translation of my book did give me a presence at international festivals outside the Arab region, and it introduced me to new readers, who are totally different from Arabs in their modes of thinking and beliefs. There are differences between the readers in the Arab region — between the Gulf Countries, the Levant, and North Africa — but these differences are small, because the language and culture is unified, such that the difference is in the details. But the Western reader receives information in a different way, not better or superior, but there are differences in culture and the understanding of other cultures.
For instance, there is a focus on women, particularly two women characters, Mama Hessa and Ghanema Al Tarrof. Those two characters — who I wrote spontaneously, since they’re from our reality — didn’t draw much attention from the Arabic-language readers. But the Western readers have concentrated on these two characters, because they see something different from their reality.
Was there any culture values or elements of heritage that the Western reader didn’t understand?
SA: Dealingwith the Western reader isn’t easy if we take into consideration what they don’t know about us, by which I mean the Kuwaiti culture in particular. This would be different if it were an Egyptian or Iraqi novel, because these are known to the western readers, but the Kuwaiti culture is an unknown for them, and that puts a huge burden and responsibility on me, when I write and present my local culture and heritage.
This is also repeated with the Western publishers. I met a few, and they asked about the themes of my novel, which is related to a country about which they know nothing, apart from the fact that it’s oil-rich and was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990. This typical view of Kuwait annoys any writer, and it bothers me, but at the same time it encourages me to work harder. It’s difficult to change people’s thinking in a short time, but we can change the thinking of the people who read a book. That’s why the translation of books in general can change a lot of misunderstandings about us, and help others to understand our social reality.
For example, in one of the European countries — I can’t remember where exactly — readers were fascinated by the character of Ghanema Al Taroof and what she represents with the abaya and incense, while for me she’s an ordinary woman you find in our society, not special and not different from other women from the older generation. That makes me happy, as it shows Western readers connected to the characters, and that I managed not only to convey the issue I was writing about, but also give a glimpse into the lives of the characters.
Do you read work translated from English and other languages, and did these translation have any effect on your writing style in Hamam al-Dar (The Dove of the House)?
SA: I am a keen reader of both classic and modern novels, because writers in the West have used different, cutting-edge writing styles, and therefore reading introduces me to these writing tools and different styles of writing.
The style I used in Hamam al-Dar isn’t new; it’s used a lot in the world, and is almost a classical style, but perhaps it isn’t used a lot in Arabic, where writers are hesitant to rebel against classical writing styles.
That’s why the reader in the Maghreb didn’t find my novel difficult to read — because they’re introduced to French in school, and that style is known to them. Meanwhile readers in the Levant, Egypt, and Iraq found it a bit difficult, and readers in the Gulf countries found it very difficult to read and understand.
At the same time, we can’t generalize about all readers. I was surprised by the amazing reviews from some readers; one in particular upset me, because the reader was very clever, more than the text itself. Some have written surprisingly precise reviews. I love those readers who — even if they didn’t like the novel — explored its texts and discovered its keys and symbols.
Are you writing now? And do you have any book coming soon?
SA: Since 2015, when Mama Hessa’s Mice was published, I’ve been working on a large fantasy novel about the time before oil. I stopped writing it, and I published Hamam al-Dar, and then I went back to it, but I stopped again to publish a novella, which will come out next month. Then I’ll go back to write the fantasy novel. I’m fascinated by its world and characters, and I don’t want to finish it.
Writing the novella was a big challenge for me. I like writing down the details, so writing a novel in fewer words was a big challenge.
The novella is a love story, set in the Kuwaiti desert in 1901, and it’s the first time you won’t find a city or the Kuwaiti seaside in one of my works. The main character is the desert, about which I haven’t written before.
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and is also a translator, book reviewer, and an editor for ArabLit and ArabKidLitNow!