Yasmina Jraissati is the creator of RAYA, a literary agency based between Lebanon and France that specializes in the representation of world translation rights of Arabic literary works. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin:
By Mari Odoy
As a literary agent, have you noticed a trend of a European readership being interested in Syrian literature in translation, and a push to read Syrian literature that tackles the topic of migration?
Yasmina Jraissati: Yes, and I have a very recent and concrete example to give you. Recently, there was a book that was published by one of the Syrian authors that I represent, Khaled Khalifeh, who is a very big voice now in Syria; he’s published several novels. And he’s one of the type of authors who travel well, because he’s very descriptive. There are a lot of characters, and they’re very emotional kinds of books, because you feel the worlds that he describes, and that’s why it’s a very powerful literature. So his recent book, Death is Hard Work, was published in Germany, and it was a massive success. In English [translation by Leri Price], it was reviewed by the LA Review of Books, the New York Times, The Guardian, you name it, and they all said it was a masterpiece. And of course, they’re beautiful reviews, and I’m very happy for him.
And even in Germany, I know from his editor that within six months the book had sold 10,000 copies. For Arabic literature this is huge — some books won’t sell more than 1000 throughout their lifetime, so this is very big. This tells you that people want to know about what’s going on in Syria. Khalifeh’s book is straightforward; it tells you directly about the conflict and society.
Now, on the other hand take another recent example, Dima Wannous, a young Syrian author who is more intimate. Her work is more focused on the main character’s psychological state, her relationship to the other characters. Wannous’ recent work [The Frightened Ones, translated to English by Elisabeth Jaquette] is less of a plot driven story. I loved it, because it was very refreshing from a literary perspective. It isn’t precisely about the conflict, it’s about how this person lived through this country with fear. The book is about fear, and the notion that it puts forward is that dictatorships work on instilling the “fear of fear,” because people do not want to be afraid, so they avoid putting themselves in a position of being afraid. It’s a very smart book. You have this play on mirroring, the main character’s anxious relationship to life. It’s very smartly done — it’s just a beautiful piece of literature.
To compare, looking only at Germany, the reviews were very good! The editing and marketing work was just as excellent as in the previous case. The two books are both remarkable. But the sales weren’t as spectacular. There might be a thousand factors, it’s hard to pin one down. But my feeling is that in Wannous’ work you, as a Western reader, can relate to the main character, you can picture her wearing her jeans. She’s like any normal girl in the Western world, a city girl. Khaled Khalifeh describes a world that people in the West don’t know. The war, the violence that Western readers cannot even picture, parts of Syrian society they don’t relate to. Khalifa gives you access to this world. Wannous does give you access to this same world, but a different kind of access, one that is more intimate, and through a different, more Westernized kind of character, and therefore less sensational. I think one of the draws of Syrian literature in Europe today is definitely through the prism of war and the suffering of people. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, because there is also great literature in that area. But I worry that the life of this interest in Syrian literature is going to be short-lived, because it’s not a purely literary incentive.
Have you seen this pattern before with political events in the Arab world affecting literature?
YJ: We’ve seen this happen before with the Lebanese War, the same thing. Novels on the Lebanese War at some point were very big. And then people get bored because they feel it gets repetitive. At a certain point, people are not in it for reading literature, they’re just looking for the story. After a while, they feel like they know what the conflict is all about, they’ve “covered the topic.” So in a sense this kind of interest is positive, because it at least gives the opportunity for some books to emerge. But in the long run, it’s not viable. For now, it’s the Syrian wave. But I’m already seeing how it’s starting to decline in acquisition. There’s still a few books coming out, because these books have been acquired in the past couple of years. But even today, editors are buying Syrian books less quickly.
Actually, Hoda Barakat was interviewed by Le Monde recently, and at one point the journalist asked why she wasn’t more visible in the French media about questions of Islam and the Arab world. And her response was that she was just a writer who writes in Arabic. It’s not because she writes in Arabic that she has something to say about Islam or conflicts in the Arab region. Language is language; you cannot confine it or tie it to the wars of the Arab region, or to Islam, or to extremism, or to whatever social and political topic. She also said something that ties back to my previous point — she said she would just love for the media to look at Arabic literature differently. It’s as if they have to make this association between the Arabic language and current events, simply because it sells well. And it’s done with a good intention: If you express pity or you express compassion in the media about what’s going on, for instance in Syria, you are positioning yourself as a good person or a moral person, trying to draw people’s attention to tragedies taking place far away, outside people’s comfort zones.
I may be digressing here, but my point is: In the long run, this feeds the association of Arabic literature with politics and war, and this is not constructive, from the angle of promoting literature. Of course, as an agent I should not complain, because in terms of the commercial success of individual books, this interest is a good thing. My hope is that this kind of attention will make people interested, and maybe this will open doors to Arabic literature as a whole.
Other than the Lebanese conflict, which you mentioned, have there been any other moments when the literary scene flocked to a specific crisis like this?
YJ: Well, I mean, this goes back to before I was agenting — the Lebanese War was in the eighties and nineties, and I started in 2004, so it’s just an older event. But today, if I’m presented with a book about the Lebanese war, I can’t even pitch it. I would need some other angle, saying for example, that it’s about young people today, or something like that. In terms of the conflict itself, it’s just not on publishers’ agenda anymore.
Do you notice any countries, in Europe or elsewhere, taking more of an interest in Arabic literature than other literatures? And more of an interest in Syrian literature than other Arabic literatures?
YJ: Comparing countries in their acquisition of Arabic literature is difficult, since proportions of translated literature in each country will vary. I don’t know the numbers today, but the numbers that I remember from a few years ago, was that the percentage of translations into English was something like 2%. The competition to get translated into English is huge, and once something is translated into English, the chances for the book to be acquired elsewhere increases. After selling the rights to Dima Wannous’s novel into English, within three months the book was sold in France, in the Netherlands, in Germany. A major obstacle is that many places don’t read Arabic, so if you have a full published translation in English, you can send it to anyone anywhere in the world. The number of translations into English is tiny, but in my experience, recently, it definitely has increased. Across the board, I can see there is more interest, from large presses, but also more from university presses, medium presses, or small presses. More people will reach out to me saying: We’re looking for a (specific kind of) title in Arabic, do you have something like that?
Maybe I’m going beyond your question here, but I think one of the issues we have is that, in the US, the book industry is, well, very industrial. Most editors know exactly what they’re looking for, what would fit with their house’s identity, their target readership, their marketing strategy, their catalog of the following Spring. I was even surprised, once, by an editor telling me on which shelf in a bookstore he expected a given book to be displayed, and for how long! So often editors will come to me, knowing exactly what they’re looking for. But this is not how the Arabic industry is. It’s not an “industry” for starters, at least not in the same sense. You have writers who dream of being Hemingway (for example), and you have publishers who take what they’ve written if they like it, and produce it. So there is no commercial fiction in the sense that has emerged in the West.
Mari Odoy is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department researching modern diasporic Syrian literature in translation.