Palestinian novelist Ahlam Bsharat’s award-winning YA novel Code Name: Butterfly was translated by Nancy Roberts and published by Neem Tree in 2016. Bsharat’s Trees for Absentees is forthcoming from Neem Tree later this year. Bsharat’s latest novel, The Memory Factory, follows a group of four friends who are moving from ninth to tenth grade, and who need to navigate past and future:
By Hend Saeed
When Ahlam Bsharat talks about her books, she take us into her world of dreams and memories. I met Bsharat at the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she gave a talk as well as a writing workshop for teens. She told me about her book, The Memory Factory, in her calm yet rebellious and musical language.
Bsharat is a Palestinian author who writes both for children and young adults. Her novel Code Name: Butterfly was a finalist for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, in the YA category as was her Trees for Absentees. She’s published a number of other books for young readers, including Ginger and My Grandmother’s Bed.
How did the translation of your young adult novel Name Code: Butterfly change things for you, and how did English-language readers receive it?
Ahlam Bsharat: The translation of the novel gave me the opportunity to meet new audiences, as I was invited to talk in a number of schools, universities, and cultural gatherings in England and other European countries, where I met with Western readers of different ages: young adults, students specializing in children’s literature, Master’s students, and readers, some of whom were interested in the Palestinian issue from the literary point of view and not political or media view, and some of whom didn’t know anything about Palestinian issues.
Meeting these audiences also confirmed that audience response to the book depends on a person’s environment, culture, education, and social, economic, and political landscape. And what seems acceptable or peaceful in some communities becomes unacceptable in other communities. I wrote the novel for Arabic readers, and I didn’t know it was going to be translated.
Code Name: Butterfly talks about a young girl’s social, political, and sexual identity and the place where she lives, Palestine. It’s a country that’s in a special situation, like any other occupied country.
The novel talks about Palestine and its daily life under occupation, but it approaches this from a creative point of view and not from that of politics or news, so the occupation becomes a part of the narration rather than a news bulletin.
Arab and Western readers are different in what they’re cautious about in the book. Arabs have been anxious about how the book talks about the girl’s sexual identity, alongside her social and political identity, while Westerners have been anxious about how war and suffering might affect young readers. One audience member said that she’s worried about her daughter reading the book, not because it talks about sexual identity, but because it talks about war and suffering, and she asked if the novel will depress her daughter.
This also confirms that translations can help readers know what’s happening in the other parts of the world, which might be to the west or to the east, and that people die because of wars and depression.
How did the idea of The Memory Factory come to you? Are you a person who holds on to memories?
AB: I take my writing for young adults very seriously, so I research the subject, language, ideas, style, music, and atmosphere that I write about, and The Memory Factory came from this research.
The book talks about a philosophical concern of readers everywhere, but I took the reader to Tell Asur, where I live, in occupied Palestine, and looked at it through a game played by four friends: three boys and a girl.
I love memories: I think childhood is the base and adult life is the margins, so you’ll find me living in memories and talking about them in my prose and poetry.
While a person can’t discuss his present, because it’s still so present in his emotions and his opinions aren’t logical, he can discuss his past in a logical way. The idea of the book came from this belief.
Is the role of the main character to protect the memories? Why should we protect memories?
AB: It’s not only the main character; everyone in the novel protects memories, and pushes others to protect them. Protecting memories not in the sense of taking the side of memory, and separating it from reality and the future, but on the contrary, as I discussed in my novel.
The main character, Jaber, wants to give up his future and present and keep the past, because it’s the only thing that brings him together with his mother, who died when he was young, and because he’s afraid to betray her memory by indulging the present and future. The novel came to give Jaber a solution.
I discussed memory through three generations: Jabber, his father, and his grandfather. Each of them has his own experience; the grandfather’s experience is different from the father’s, who lost his wife, and different from that of the son who lost his mother. I also tried to open conversations between the grandfather and the father, and between the son and his friends.
The plot helped me to work on the child’s personality, which emerged and gained new experience in dealing with memories. He discovered how things become memories, and how we save ourselves from them, even when even when the past was better than the present.
You have published a few young adult books recently, and they all were well received. In the future, are you more inclined to write for young adults rather than for children?
AB: On the contrary, I love writing for children! But writing for children under 12 means a picture book, which needs a team: a writer, an illustrator, and a publisher to work at one table, and putting together this sort of effort isn’t easy in the Arab world.
When I have an idea flying around in my head, I try to catch it and write it, and then I send it to the publisher, who sends it to the illustrator, who captures part of my imagination, and then the publisher designs the book, and all that takes a long time and sometimes doesn’t work or isn’t successful. I’m not only talking about the Arab experience, but also on international level.
Most successful books are made when both writer and illustrator work together. We need a publisher that can bring the writer and illustrator to one table to work together. So I love writing for children, but I worry about not finding that harmony and that cooperation.
My last book Mariam, the Lady of the Astrolabe was a collaborative work with a team of friends. A Palestinian calligraphist hand-wrote the text and painted the Arabic calligraphy; another friend researched the scientific information and the making of astrolabes; and I researched the literary scene of the time the character lived in. Then we put the book together. The writer lives on passion, and the passion need wings to fly.
I also love writing for young adults, and the Arab literary scene needs more young-adult writers in different genres, such as adventure, drama, romance, and science fiction, although writers should choose one genre to work in and not quickly leap from one to another. The door is open for everyone.
The good young-adult books are rare, so that’s why I feel a responsibility to them. I wish I had another hand to write more, as I feel I can do more, and we’re in need of hard and true efforts toward writing for young adults.
This is the second time you are participating in Emirates LitFest. What do you think about what the festival is offering?
AB: The festival provides an opportunity to participating writers to communicate with readers, and especially students. It’s also a chance for writers to give their feedback and suggestions, especially those authors who’ve participated more than once.
I consider the sessions and the school visits very important. I was at a school visit today, and the students were passionate, and the school was ready to host a writer, and everyone was working with the best of intentions to make it successful: the festival team, the school, and the writer. We need to encourage such teamwork, and the writer can be a partner rather than a guest.
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!