A Revolution against Realism: A Talk with Yasmine Ramadan

This August, Yasmine Ramadan’s  Space in Modern Egyptian Fiction is set to appear in paperback:

By Tugrul Mende

First published in 2019, Yasmine Ramadan’s Space in Modern Egyptian Fiction explores how aesthetic landscapes were transformed by Egyptian writers of the 60s generation. Why did this literary generation cause a marked shift in the representation of rural, urban, and exilic spaces? In this interview, we talk about the journey to writing and publishing Space in Modern Egyptian Fiction?

Why Space in Modern Egyptian Fiction? What are you encompassing?

Yasmine Ramadan: My book is based on my dissertation, which is entitled “Shifting Ground: Spatial Representations in the Literature of the Sixties Generation in Egypt.” When working on the book. I realized that while I was heavily focused on the work of the sixties generation, I wanted to emphasize their position within the broader field of cultural production in Egypt, and so my narrative is also populated by the group’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. This was the thinking behind the inclusion of broader label of “Modern Egyptian Fiction.” And it was in consultation with Rasheed El-Enany, the editor of Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature, that I decided to pinpoint the focus upon space more directly in the book’s title. 

What led you to write about the ’60s generation? And how is your understanding of this literary grouping different from other scholars’? 

YR: My initial spark was my love for the fiction of this period. I am particularly drawn to this generation of writers and the way in which they embraced aesthetic innovation and were intent on carving a literary path that moved away from the realist tradition of their predecessors. The relationship between the artistic and the political, which is at the heart of much of their work, has also always been particularly compelling. As I read more of their works of fiction, I became increasingly aware of how this corpus reveals the disappearance of an idealized nation in the Egyptian novel. And one of the primary ways I could track this was through the representation of the various spaces that became central to the book, principally the rural, the urban, and the exilic.     

As I began to read more of the discussions surrounding their emergence on the cultural scene that unfolded in the literary and cultural journals of the time, and which Elisabeth Kendall has documented so well, I became intrigued by the fierce debates of the time. Writers, intellectuals and critics hotly debated whether his group was indeed a new generation and why it mattered. In thinking about my analysis of the works of fiction, I wanted to situate the emergence of this group within the context of these debates.

As I discuss in the opening chapters of my book, my work is heavily influenced by the writing of Samia Mehrez, Richard Jacquemond, Elisabeth Kendall, and Muhammad Badawi, among others, who have written about the literary production of this generation while also taking into account the dynamics of the cultural field in Egypt which impacted the emergence and establishment of this group of writers. I wanted to engage with this sociology of literature, as an approach and methodology in my reading of the literary works. Finally, I wanted to bring together an analysis of the various spaces of and outside the nation (spaces often examined separately) in thinking about the literary production of this group, and in doing so combine the thematic and the aesthetic within the socio-economic and political context of this significant period in Egyptian history. 

How did you choose which authors to focus on?

YR: In choosing the authors and their works I focused primarily upon those whom, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, became “consecrated” members of the cultural field in Egypt. One of my central concerns in the book was how and by what means a group of writers is constructed as a generation and who is and isn’t included in this category. So, the central figures in the book came to be recognized as important players within the field, taking up significant positions as editors of newspapers, literary journals, and periodicals, and their work was circulated widely, translated into numerous languages, and received critical success.  

Then, in choosing particular works, I focused on novels that most clearly register a significant transformation in the representation of urban, rural, and exilic space while simultaneously showcasing the new aesthetics of space so central to their literary production.

Finally, I deliberately chose novels that cover the period 1966–2012 in order to promote the consideration of the literary production of this generation beyond the boundaries of a single decade. If I faced difficulties, it was in narrowing my focus, given the plethora of works published by the sixties generation of writers.  

Who are the core representative authors of the sixties generation, how do you differentiate them from previous generations, and how, in turn, did they influence later authors? 

YR: The term “sixties generation” is most broadly defined as writers who began writing in the 1960s and who have come to be associated with the literary and stylistic innovations of the time. Its most prominent members include Yahya Taher Abdullah, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Sinna, Radwa Ashour, Ibrahim Aslan, Muhammad al-Bisati, Amal Dunqul, Gamal al-Ghitani, Sonallah Ibrahim, Edwar al-Kharrat, Raʾuf Musʿad, Yusuf al-Qaid, Abd al-Hakim Qasim, Muhammad Hafiz Rajab, Bahaa Taher, and Majid Tubya. But like I said, there was and continues to be debate about who should be included in this category. 

Emerging at a time of great instability in Egypt, the members of this generation were significantly shaped by the political and economic context, as well as disillusionment with the postcolonial project in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution. This was largely a group of younger writers, who actively moved away from the realist paradigms and instead fractured the time and space of the realist narrative; focused on the subjective; merged dreams and reality; and employed the mythic, historical, or folkloric tradition. They also recognized the commonalities they shared with their counterparts in the Arab and international domain; common causes extended beyond national or even regional borders, uniting Arab writers and artists with their partners in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. 

Perhaps one of the most fundamental ways they wanted to move away from their predecessors was in deliberately moving away from the realist tradition that had become dominant. This move was continued by their successors, mostly notably by the so-called nineties generation, which I discuss in the closing chapter of the book. This younger emerging group continued the aesthetic innovations of their predecessors while trying to reimagine the political, and a desire to move away from the ilitizam (commitment) so fundamental to the sixties writers. 

You mention in the introduction that women writers largely go unrepresented as part of the sixties generation. Why so? What would a book about the women writers of the sixties generation look like?

YR: The absence of female writers, with some notable exceptions like Radwa Ashour and Salwa Bakr, reflects the gender bias within the field of cultural production in Egypt. Since I am examining the writers who came to occupy the positions of prominence and power within the field, this absence becomes all the more glaring. I think this in part a result of the patriarchal formulation of the field, in which male writers largely occupied the positions of power and authority within the field and by extension were afforded more opportunities for the publication and circulation of their work. Literary scholars such as Ferial Ghazoul, Samia Mehrez, Richard Jacquemond, and Hoda Elsadda have done important work examining the literary production of women writers who were often sidelined by this hierarchical and patriarchal generational categorization. In discussing the nineties generation for example, Mehrez notes how “gender equality in literary production” is immediately apparent. 

As part of the book, did you get a chance to talk with the authors you worked on? What was your translation process like?

YR: I was lucky enough and grateful to speak with some of the authors I worked on. And I both translated and used existing translations. Because I was focusing on authors whose work has become widely circulated and who have been translated into a number of languages, I was able to use the translations in conjunction with the Arabic originals, and including my own translations where needed.

Edwar Al-Kharrat wrote about five core aesthetic trends at mid-century, calling them a “new sensibility.” In what way are these group of writers dividable in to different waves?

YR: They certainly overlap, and the trends are most useful if we think of them as fluid designations, something which al-Kharrat himself was very cognizant of. Even this idea of whether the writers could be divided into waves (trends, movements etc) was strongly debated at the time.  

How helpful are Edwar al-Kharrat’s views on his fellow writers fo the sixties generation, considering he was both critic and novelist? 

YR: Al-Kharrat is certainly interesting in occupying a position of critic and literary writer simultaneously. He was of course producing experimental literary work as early as the 1940s, and so his influence is considerable and can’t be overlooked. He was also fundamental in spearheading the movement and in helping emerging writers publish and circulate their work. And as you say, he has produced some of the most significant works of criticism about the sixties generation. As I argue throughout the book, the formulation of the sixties generation is not neutral but rather is a strategy that helps writers gain access to positions of power and prominence in the field of cultural production. And so, in coming to be recognized as one of the principal members and founders of the movement, al-Kharrat’s own position was also bolstered. Again, that is not to overlook al-Kharrat’s contributions but rather to consider his position within the broader field of cultural production. 

Which literary writings most influenced this new generation? 

YR: Yusuf al-Sharuni, Edwar al-Kharrat, Fuʾad al-Tikirli, and Naguib Mahfouz  are the most cited Arab writers as far as influence and inspiration were concerned. As we just said, al-Kharrat is strikingly positioned as both an inspiration and a member of this generation. Writers were also influenced by writers and thinkers beyond the Arab world, notably Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Che Guevara. 

You write, of iltizam, that “Literature was thus to be used both in the collective fight for socio-economic and political liberation (…), and in the individual quest for freedom to be attained through reading and writing.“ Do you have a sense of the concerns that drew this particular generation to literature, and what they felt might be “accomplished” through it? 

YR: As the quote you mentioned shows, the sixties generation largely understood their role as artists to be intricately connected to broader socio-economic and political struggles, and to the ongoing fight for socialism, democracy, and freedom in the postcolonial context. Emerging at a time of great instability in Egypt, this group of writers had enthusiastically supported Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies, particularly those calling for social and economic justice. And yet they found themselves struggling to contend with what was undeniably an authoritarian regime, critiquing the discourse of Egyptian nationalism, and contending with the defeat of 1967. Within this context, the sixties generation understood their work as having an artistic and a political purpose, and continually endeavored to find new and innovative ways to represent their ever-changing reality. And their political struggles continued in the following decades with the regimes of Sadat and Mubarak. 

Should we continue to study current literary trends with a “generational” frame? Or do you think that no longer works for contemporary writers? 

YR: What is striking is that, despite the fierce debates about the use of the generational category, it has continued to dominate the field of cultural production in Egypt. As I mention here and in the book, the following movement is referred to as the “nineties generation,” for example. I think contemporary writers are as fluid as the sixties writers and that these categories are useful as W. J. van de Akker and G. J. Dorleijin suggest, in so far they help writers and critics “get a grip on their contemporary literary world.” We should not however be too rigid in our categorization and should be aware of the ways such labels can be both generative and limiting for our scholarship.  

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.