Meet New Literary Agent Saliha Haddad

Saliha Haddad started working as a literary agent at the World Arts Agency at the start of 2021, and she now represents — among other clients — International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted Algerian novelist Abdelatif Ould Abdallah:

We talked a bit about how agents can change a literary landscape, and what sorts of projects interest her.

Can you tell us a little about the World Arts Agency? They caught my attention when I saw you were representing International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted author Abdelatif Ould Abdallah.

Saliha Haddad: World Arts Agency (WAA) is a new full-spectrum arts agency based in South Africa and one of only a handful of literary agencies on the African continent. As a diverse team, we seek to represent diverse talents and voices, and to change the discrepancies in the African literary and publishing world. In the US and UK there are hundreds, if not thousands, of active literary agents. But here in Africa there are only a few, and because of this, African authors, especially authors who are new into the publishing world, are not being represented and make mistakes in their career that are sometimes difficult to bounce back from. We have many interested parties supporting what we’re doing, and in the background to the WAA, there is support from well-known authors through to top independent African publishers.

The WAA consists of a literary division; a music division; a film division; a boutique bookstore based in Johannesburg; we also have an in-house publisher, but not for our own clients, as we approach only the top African and international publishers for the authors we choose to represent. We manage The James Currey Prize for African Literature – James Currey and Chinua Achebe, through Heinemann publishers, produced the famous African Writers Series. And we also have a soon-to-be-launched literary journal, the Hotazel Review, which the WAA literary team will act as its editors for in association with its founder, including myself as a co-editor of fiction. We’re also looking into the potential of representing fine artists, but being new, as you can imagine, we’ve been very busy.

Abdelatif Ould Abdallah is indeed my client, and I am proud of it. He is very talented and his works are timely and discuss real and lived experiences, while at the same time being captivating and thrilling psychological crime novels. This is one of the reason I actually approached him, as I am interested in psychological thrillers but also in works that discuss timely subjects. 

I see that you’re interested in “literary fiction and creative non-fiction” from writers who are “original and experimental in their storytelling and writers who are able to create new debates and discussions around important issues” and particularly from African writers. Does this include authors who write in Arabic (and French)? Can Arabophone and Francophone authors query you?

SH: Yes, absolutely, I do wish to receive queries from Arabophone and Francophone authors, especially as you’ve noted, from African authors. I started working for Africa in Dialogue as a literary interviewer beginning in 2020, and have had the chance to interview some of the most renowned African authors, like Abdulrazak Gurnah and Ayesha Harruna Attah, as well as new writers. This is actually my first time being on the other side of an interview.

Working for the magazine has also allowed me to witness the large pool of African literary talent, and so, in a way, it’s one of the reasons I accepted joining the WAA team, for training as a literary agent, right away. I was approached by them at the beginning of this year, 2021. I’m lucky because the process of integrating into the agency and the team has been smooth and thoroughly guided. I would also like to mention that the WAA doesn’t only seek to support the writers and artists it represents, but also its agents, as they would be happy if any one of us were picked up by literary agencies or publishing houses in the US or UK.

How do you work with translators?

SH: As a junior literary agent, just starting out, I haven’t yet worked with translators. I need first of all to build a client list, and I would prefer to work with fresh manuscripts by my clients. I don’t necessarily want to go out on regional rights sales with already published works, and usually the publisher of those books will have the rights for this in their publishing agreement. Translating these manuscripts, especially from Arabic and French, into English, and thereby helping our authors into the English publishing market, is not going to be easy, but it is important that I try to do this. It’s also why I will primarily focus on literary fiction and creative non-fiction. Our stories are important to share with the rest of the world and I’m excited to be able to be a part of that sharing.  

For writers who work in languages or countries where agents aren’t common, what does having an agent change?

SH: As I mentioned before, it enables the writers to avoid making career mistakes, especially early career ones, if they are new to the publishing world. And besides the very many other aspects in which having a literary agent is so sought-after, literary agents are able to pitch the manuscripts of the clients we choose to represent to top national and international publishers, and we negotiate publishing agreements on their behalf, and this is important. In places where agents aren’t common, I think it will help reshape the publishing landscape, to make it more professional and ethical, and to allow serious authors to receive the representation they deserve. It’s one of the reasons Abdelatif wanted to have me as his agent. 

And why did you want to work as an agent?

SH: I have always been passionate about the publishing world and wanted to be part of it; in a way, I saw it as this mystical magical space where only the chosen few are admitted. And though I didn’t know in which manner, I knew I wanted to be part of it. So, when the opportunity to work as an agent presented itself, I didn’t hesitate. Working with authors, and reading their manuscripts, is a dream come true. I am also happy and grateful to be able to present, and eventually represent, the best African authors to the world’s top publishers.