‘All the Women Inside Me’: A Talk with Jana Elhassan and Michelle Hartman

Jana Elhassan’s أنا٬ هي والأخريات was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2013, when the author was not yet 30. The novel, ElHassan’s second, crafts a psychological portrait of a woman through the lens of her complex relationships:

By Tugrul Mende

ElHassan’s third novel, The 99th Floor, was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2015, and it appeared in Michelle Hartman’s translation a year later. Now, Elhassan’s sophomore novel will join The 99th Floor in English translation, also by Hartman: All The Women Inside Me.

Jana, I think you published the novel أنا٬ هي والأخريات (or All The Women Inside Me) in 2012. What led up to that novel? 

Jana Elhassan: The reason why I started writing All the Women Inside Me was that I had a friend who was subject to domestic abuse. She was a young, smart, and educated woman, and it struck me that she had somehow accepted and adapted to the situation. I wanted to question and portray the psychology of women who are subject to domestic abuse: Why would they keep silent, and what makes them feel so unworthy of happiness? This led me also to examine the social, religious, and political context related to their circumstances, as well as their upbringing. Later on, I found myself writing not only about women, but also about a city in Lebanon (Tripoli) that had witnessed a lot of violence and, I would say, abuse. I wrote the city through the body of a woman to show how similar they are and to reflect on how the social context and internal psychological aspects intertwine to produce damaged personas and places. 

Michelle, when did you first come across this novel? And what did you think about it when you first read it?

Michelle Hartman: I was aware of the novel from when it was first published and had a copy of it on my shelf among my “to read” stack, along with so many others. But I did not in fact read it until I was working on The 99th Floor, as part of my research into translating that novel (and because I was on sabbatical from my day-job as a professor and had time to read novels!) I found it engaging and captivating, similar to The 99th Floor, but to be honest in some ways I found it more raw and even “real.” It really spoke to me as a woman who mainly translates works by women, as a text that I wanted to travel outside of its first life in Arabic. The insights in it about domestic abuse, about life in a city like Tripoli, about how life can trap you are so meaningful and so urgent.

Jana, how would you describe the characters in the novel and how are they different from the characters in your other novels, such as for example Hilda in The Ninety-Ninth Floor?

JH: The female characters in All the Women Inside Me are a reflection of how society tries to push women to be in two categories, either silent and docile, or simply an object of pleasure, and the latter is the biggest misconception of female freedom and liberation. I find that women struggle to find their own voices and their own identities in an environment that has not learned to see them differently, or in other words, that does not really want them to have characters, or simply to be.

This is something I believe every woman has experienced in some form, and it takes various contexts in different cultures, but it is there. That is why my female characters are on the lookout for ways to be seen and heard, whether it is the mother to whom her husband turns a blind eye; young Sahar who is looking for recognition; or even Hala who is looking for an acknowledgement of her pain. I believe Hilda in The Ninety Ninth Floor was a more established as a rebellious character; I would think of her as a bit more courageous in terms of establishing an identity and facing her inhibitions. Hilda is also on the lookout, but maybe not for herself, instead for some kind of a reconciliation with the past. 

As for the male characters, I believe that they are also broken. I somehow think all my characters are a mixture of broken and trying to overcome the mishaps of life. The most common thing between all of my characters, men and women, is pain. Some of them yield to it and let it shape them, and others are on the lookout for a breakthrough. 

“The most common thing between all of my characters, men and women, is pain. Some of them yield to it and let it shape them, and others are on the lookout for a breakthrough.”

Jana Elhassan

Michelle, in what way would you describe language the characters use in the novel?

MHI would not describe the language of speech and language of narrative as totally distinct in this novel. But if I could build upon Jana’s answer to her question here, I think that the characterization in All the Women Inside Me is very strong, especially the way Sahar’s character is written. This is also a strength of both Hilda and Majd, the main characters in The 99th Floor. The brilliance of Sahar’s character is that Jana creates her as a woman who is very much grounded and rooted in a place, Tripoli, and a specific milieu there, but she is also any woman or put another way “everywoman.” As Jana says above, she created Sahar in a way that all women can relate to in one way or another. This really stands out to me about the book.

Jana, both of your novels that have been translated to English were shortlisted for the IPAF. How did the prize change critics’ reception of your work?

JH: I believe the novel was well-received when it was published, even before getting nominated for the IPAF. It was my second novel, and I was working as a journalist back then, and I had somehow started to establish my character as a writer. What really makes me happy now is that the novel has lived on; it is being translated to different languages almost a decade after its original publication, and this makes me feel it continues to do well. It was not just something that grabbed people’s attention because it was nominated for a prize; it is a book that people continue to notice, and it makes me think to myself, Oh maybe I am a good writer after all, and that is something I struggle with, whether what I write, and whether writing in general, all writing, makes a big difference after all. 

Michelle, how do you see the IPAF as affecting pathways of translation? Would you have worked on the novel had it not been shortlisted on the IPAF? 

MH: I translated the novel because I think that writing does make a difference, and I think Jana is a good writer, not because it was shortlisted for a prize! That is honest. In fact, though I have translated several novels that have been long and shortlisted for this prize, this plays no part in my decision to translate a work or not. Of course, major prizes like the IPAF make a difference to works’ visibility, circulation, and ability to get translated, because of the ways that the market for translated literature works today. But I am someone who is skeptical of prizes, awards, and the role of capital in deciding what we should read, buy, consume, and so on… I choose what I want to work on from my own reading and evaluation of the text and what I find inside of it—not external evaluations by prize committees. I feel that this is something very important to say.

Jana, when you start writing a new novel, what do you consider first? The characters, the setting, the narrative or is it a more holistic process? 

JH: I would quote the Irish and British novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch here, when she says: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” I think writing is like creating an alternate world, where you cannot have characters without the setting, or the setting without the narrative. Perhaps when I started writing, I was someone who focused more the characters and their inner psychology. That’s because I am mostly concerned with human nature and a lot of philosophical questions. Later on, and throughout my journalistic work, I have learned to give more space to the setting, because I was growing more aware of how human beings are not entities separate from their surroundings, and how much of a role these surroundings play. I also now try to pay more attention to the narrative and how it makes sense, so that all my elements come together. But later on I came to the same conclusion as Murdoch: We kind of never reach what we aspire to in writing. 

Michelle, can you say something about your translation process? 

MH: My translation process can vary slightly from work to work. But overall, I begin by reading the work several times—ideally over a period of time if possible. And I do what I can to immerse myself in its world. It depends on the novel, of course, but I also try to curate a reading practice for myself—pleasure reading and otherwise—during the main translation time that reinforces elements of what I am trying to achieve in the translation. So this may be contextual or “research” in the more conventional sense, or it may be reading other novels or works of literature that resonate with the text in some way. I thought a lot about women’s self-narrations when translating All the Women Inside Me and read a series of novels that were also about women’s interior journeys. I do this to capture a moment and create a unique voice, but also to have copious vocabularies around me. Depending on the context of the novel, then, I may also do a similar immersion in other kinds of materials. I definitely also do research when it is relevant, and look at pictures and images if I cannot physically be in the spaces the novel describes. Because this was a COVID translation, I found myself googling spots in Tripoli just to remember them, for example, and have a visual image firmly in mind as I worked on some passages.

“I begin by reading the work several times–ideally over a period of time if possible. And I do what I can to immerse myself in its world. It depends on the novel, of course, but I also try to curate a reading practice for myself–pleasure reading and otherwise–during the main translation that reinforces elements of what I am trying to achieve in the translation.”

Michelle Hartman

Jana, what is most important to you while writing a novel? A message that you want to convey, a certain aesthetic?

JH: I don’t write to convey messages. I don’t think this is the role of the writer. Of course, I do have concerns in life and things that I care about, but I am not an activist and I do not like to play the role of a preacher. I cannot also say the aesthetics of the language are the only thing that is important to me; I would say I use words to reflect the world, and to think out loud in writing, and to create characters and give them a life. I think I do it for the sense of magical creation: You make up a world and you temporarily live in it, then move to another world. It is marvelous and fun if you think about it, and it gives you a great sense of achievement, although at the same time it can be very tiring. 

Michelle, how different was it for you to work on this novel vs. The Ninety-ninth Floor?

MH: Well… it was also very tiring! I am joking, but it wasn’t an easy book to translate. The intensity and subject matter of both novels are equally difficult. But All the Women Inside Me is so deeply interior and located within Sahar’s psyche in a way that is particularly challenging to capture in a translation. And then I was working on this novel during the pandemic, so I had little chance to interact with humans face to face. This of course oddly parallels so much of Sahar’s life, which was not lost on me while I was working, but it definitely was not conducive to me feeling naturally creative!

Was it difficult for you, Jana, first to find a publisher for the original publication later, both of you, for the translation? 

JH: It was not the easiest thing, but as I mentioned earlier, I had somehow established credibility as a writer and journalist, and this made it easier for me to find a publisher. I actually submitted the novel to Michel Moushabeck, Interlink’s publisher, a couple of years ago and asked him to read through it and check if it was a good fit to be translated.

MH: I came into the picture at this point, as I was approached by Interlink to see if I would be able to translate the novel. As I had already translated The 99th Floor, I was happy to do it. I like working with authors over the course of many works and developing a relationship, but also developing a voice together that makes the translations read as fresh and original works in their own right. 

How much of this translation was a product of you working together? How much did you talk about it during the process of translation? At least in the afterword of The Ninety-Ninth Floor, Michelle you wrote that it was “a collective endeavor.” Was the same true this time? 

MH: Well in The 99th Floor, I worked closely with Jana, but also with several research assistants on various parts of the book, so I really felt the collectivity of the project. I was also living in Lebanon and was thinking and talking about the translation regularly with people who knew Arabic and English. This novel was done in very different circumstances, most of it during the global pandemic. So while I was in touch with Jana, I was also alone a lot of the time. The very few people who I was speaking to were all very helpful in my thinking and translating, but it was also done in a more solitary way. But the conversations, clarifications, and discussions with Jana are always very helpful and illuminating. What do you think Jana?

JHI think it is great that I get to be part of the translation and the entire process. It is almost like the journey of a new book. 

MH: Yes, and in this case with the new title, it felt like launching a brand new book in many ways. 

The English title is a bit different from the original. Was this a choice that you made or was it a decision by the publisher? 

JH: We went through a lot of choices, back and forth, to find a title that would be more convenient for English. The publisher also had a few suggestions, we all came to the conclusion that this was the best choice. 

MH: Jana is being a bit more discreet than I have been in talking about this! We found it difficult to find the right title and did not agree with many of the suggestions offered to us by the publisher. The Arabic title is short, precise, and captures the work perfectly. Any approximation of this using the same words was unsatisfying and clumsy. So we had to think “outside the box” and we all agreed in the end on this one.

It is the second time that you worked together now, and that Michelle translated your novels. Do you have any other projects that you’ll work on together in the near future? 

JH: There is nothing in progress at the moment, but I do hope so. Michelle is a wonderful translator and I very much appreciate her diligence and look forward to future collaborations. 

MH: It is lovely of you to say this, I too would welcome future collaborations. We have only met a few times in person, but we have talked a lot “virtually” at this point, and I have found Jana to be a really inspiring person to work with … in terms of her language and commitment to literature, but also her ideas and the way she engages the world.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.