We start off this Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) with a list of ten recommended books by women, translated to English and published in 2020:
Anecdotally, there has been a minor improvement since we began marking Women in Translation Month in 2014. This improvement is less in the translation of Arab women’s literary works to English, but in those works being received as serious literature, rather than as autobiography or ethnography. This year, Adania Shibli’s Minor Details, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette, has been read widely as literature, as was Jokha al-Harthi’s Celestial Bodies, tr. Marilyn Booth — at least, after its 2019 Man Booker International win.
This year’s WiTMonth, we’ll look not only at women’s writing — and the fraught space around Arab women’s works translated to English — but also what’s translated to Arabic, and translations from Arabic into other languages.
But to start the month, a listicle of recommended works:
1) The Olive Trees’ Jazz, by Samira Negrouche, translated by Marilyn Hacker (February 2020, Pleiades Press)
The Olive Trees’ Jazz and Other Poems opens by posing an urgent question about identity and language.
The bilingual poetry collection – with French poems by Algerian poet Samira Negrouche and English translations by Marilyn Hacker – arrives this month from Pleiades Press, and its first work blurs the lines between essay, manifesto, open letter, and prose poem. In “Who is speaking,” the poet-narrator seizes the reader by the shirtfront and asks: “Tell me – Who are you? When you speak in someone else’s language?”
2) The Frightened Ones, by Dima Wannous, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (April 2020, Harvill Secker)
Shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Frightened Ones begins when two Syrians, Suleima and Nassim, meet in the lobby of their therapist’s office in Damascus. This is the opening to their unusual — and tender — love affair, conducted in large part through Suleima reading a draft of Nassim’s latest book.
A brilliant novel where fear overlays fear, and where fears echo and build on past stories of fear; particularly heartbreaking to fans of Saadallah Wannous, the author’s father.
Also listen: “A Woman Shaped by Fear,” on the Bulaq podcast
3) Passage to the Plaza, by Sahar Khalifeh, translated by Sawad Hussain (April 2020, Seagull)
Sahar Khalifeh, who was a finalist for the prestigious Neustadt Prize, has seen a number of her novels translated to English, but not her classic Bab al-Saha, which appears both on the Banipal list of the “best 100 Arabic novels” and was also voted by the Arab Writers Union as one of the best 105 novels of the twentieth century.
It’s set in and around a “house of ill repute” in Bab Al-Saha, a quarter of Nablus, during the 1987 Intifada, and is a woman-focused narration of conflict.
Also watch: A discussion with translator Sawad Hussain
Also listen: “Tight Spaces,” on the Bulaq podcast
4) Minor Detail, by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (May 2020, New Directions)
Adania Shibli is a prose stylist whose earlier novels Touch (translated by Paula Haydar) and We Are All Equally Far from Love (translated by Paul Starkey) examine the difficulty of understanding ourselves and the world around us in settings limned in by Israeli occupation. Her latest novel, translated by the award-winning Jaquette, takes place in two times: one is the summer of 1949 when Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, including a teenaged girl who is first raped, then killed, then buried in the desert. The other is the present day, as a woman in Ramallah is looking into this minor detail, a crime committed exactly twenty-five years before she was born.
5) Alya and the Three Cats, by
A favorite picture book of mine, illustrated by a favorite children’s-book artist, Maya Fidawi.
In this book, Maryam and Sami have three cats: Pasha the black Angora, Minouche the grey tabby, and Amir the playful Siamese.
One day, Maryam’s belly starts to get bigger and something starts to stir in it. Maryam disappears for a few days and comes back home with something that screams and demands a lot of attention. The three cats are very confused. A wonderful book for a child who’s expecting a young sibling.
From the publisher’s description:
Jmiaa, a prostitute in Casablanca, lives alone with her daughter. A woman of strong character and quick wit, she doesn’t hold back when describing the world around her: her lover Chaïba, a crude, wordless brute, or Halima, her depressed fellow prostitute who reads the Qur’an between clients, or Mouy, her mother with implacable moral standards who seems completely ignorant of her daughter’s work. Then along comes a young woman, Chadlia – dubbed “Horse Mouth” by Jmiaa – who wants to make her first film about the life of this Casa neighborhood.
A starred review from Publishers Weekly.
7) Voices of the Lost, by Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth (September 2020, Oneworld)
Winner of the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (as بريد الليل / The Night Post), the novel is composed of six letters interrupted midway by short, fragmentary sections of narrative prose. Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, said that this epistolary novel “exposes us to the precarious nature of human existence in a world in drift. The protagonists’ search for a common thread unites and separates them with equal cruelty. An intense and disciplined novel, The Night Post will outlive the worlds that animated it.”
8) Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, by Sonia Nimr, translated by M Lynx Qualey (October 2020, Interlink Books)
This novel won the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category, it’s a thrilling historical fantasy for adults and children alike. It follows the adventures of the medieval Palestinian girl, Qamr, who sets off from her small village life in Palestine and finds herself kidnapped, enslaved, escaped, joining pirates, opening a bookshop, finding love, and having a hundred other adventures before finally, in the end, finding (we hope) what she was searching for.
A consummate guilty-pleasure novel for our times.
Full disclosure: M Lynx Qualey is ArabLit’s chief editor.
9) Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala’ika: A Bilingual Reader, translated by Emily Drumsta (October 2020, Saqi Books)
Revolt Against the Sun presents a selection of Nazik al-Mala’ika’s poetry in English for the first time. Bringing together poems from each of her published collections, it traces al-Mala’ika’s transformation from a lyrical Romantic poet in the 1940s to her work in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also read al-Malai’ka’s “Night Lover,” Two New Translations of Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007), “Revolt Against the Sun,” trans. Drumsta, on Jadaliyya, From ‘A Song for Mankind,’ trans. Drumsta, on ArabLit, and a Q&A with Drumsta about al-Malaika’s revolutionary romantic poetry.
10) Summer with the Enemy, by Shahla Ujayli, translated by Michelle Hartman (November 2020, Interlink Books)
This novel — shortlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — takes place mainly in two timelines: in the protagonist’s Raqqa childhood and in the Cologne to which she has fled. Nicholas is in both, first as her enemy, and her mother Najwa’s lover, and later as an old man in Cologne. It is a story of personal change, of not recognizing oneself and one’s loved ones across space and time, and all the ways in which we can become strange to ourselves.