In what sort of language should an author write about something as banal and contested as menstruation? Should a character pee in colloquial or Modern Standard Arabic? In this interview from 2015, Rachael Daum discusses urinary-tract infections, menstrual blood, and the ghost of colonialism with acclaimed Lebanese novelist and scholar Alexandra Chreiteh:

By Rachael Daum

Something I really admire about both of your novels so far is your head-on approach to very, shall we say, earthly matters. In Always Coca-Cola, Abeer gets her period, and in Ali and His Russian Mother, the protagonist is prone to UTIs, and you write very viscerally about the flow of blood and urine, respectively. I’m interested in this, and why you chose to have your readers confront these subjects? Particularly written in fus7a, or Modern Standard Arabic? 

Photo from Tufts University

Alexandra Chreiteh: First of all, it is the source of a lot a lot of frustration for me — that is, I am really frustrated with the way that women are regulated in social and literary space. Women are always there as an erotic body, depicted in sexual ways, and naturally the issue of female desire is a big problem. There are of course female authors who write about female desire, and that’s great. But oftentimes women’s bodies are either sexualized or given a sort of sanctity, or both, and this sanctity is harmful. We, as Lebanese women, and I think as women in general, have to hide these things [such as periods and urination], we have to be ashamed of these things. The reality is that we deal with these things on a daily basis, and we need to explore them. I wanted to deal with the female body in a way that was explored not through someone else’s gaze.

I wanted a woman there just with her body, not constructing her identity against anyone or anything else. This is tricky, but I feel like it was important for me to give at least the protagonist agency over her own body, or to portray the ways in which women’s agency is complicated or lacking because of certain attitudes towards their bodies. I did not want to depict women as bad variations on men, which I feel is the way they are often portrayed in social space and discourse in Lebanon.

In Ali and His Russian Mother, it was very important for me to address a very certain type of heroic discourse. It’s used a lot in times of war. Of course the woman’s body is discussed there always as a metaphor — the female body that’s raped stands for the loss of sovereignty over land, or is killed to be conquered; [there’s] the mother’s body that gives the nation its sons. And I wanted to show something else, the actual physical needs of someone, a woman, going though war. I needed to talk about the real, everyday struggles of war, about the huge dissonance between the “un-noble” need to go to the bathroom and the noble-sounding calls to sacrifice oneself for one’s country. Of course, in times of war, women are the biggest losers, but they are often reduced to metaphors. They are rarely allowed to exist for themselves. I kept asking myself: when is blood pure and when is it impure? I needed to address the contrast between these two levels of existence and discourse.

And remember: talking about periods in fus7a is not insulting, because periods are not insulting!

You choose to write in fus7a about very colloquial matters. Why did you choose to do this? 

ali

AC: This was the most important thing for me to deal with while I was writing. For me, fus7a is a very difficult tool to use. Writing in fus7a is always already a translation, because you need to translate your own thoughts into writing, and the fact that the pulse of everyday life does not flow through fus7a makes it rigid, especially when it comes to the description of the mundane. It is a question of who owns language and who owns the right to express herself or himself, to make space for herself in society and in literature. You can reach more people in fus7a than you can in dialect. It’s a kind of locus of power: the social structures of authority are recreated within language if you do nothing to stop that.

For me, the way to stop it was to write about young women in Beirut dealing with really important issues, and some unimportant issues, but all of these almost never make it into fus7a in the voice of these women. They are always represented by someone else, through the authority of someone else, and not through their own authority. To break the authority of language and of social space, I tried to infect fus7a with the music of these women’s own language, while bending fus7a to make it do what I wanted. Everyone can use fus7a â€” why should it only address very “noble” ideas and “noble” causes? Why should authority only be held by a certain group that has grammar and the legal system on their side?

And of course there are colloquialisms in the novel, and the mixture was very important to me. Lots of slang, too, which is also important—it’s very subversive. Periods are subversive, everything is subversive!

What is your relationship with Michelle Hartman, your translator, like? As with any translation project, there is conflict and collaboration; how do you navigate this, particularly as your English is very good and you have the luxury (or curse!) of being able to read the translation?

AC: Michelle and I are very good friends! We talk a lot. I respect her work as a translator—she is so involved in the texts she translates, and it’s important for her to respect the author’s intention. (If there is any such intention!) Basically she wanted me to be as involved as I felt comfortable in the translation. And she didn’t want to take away another woman’s agency! The issue with the translation of Always Coca Cola for me was that, in the original text, I tried to make the prose as clear as possible, and to make it flow as well as possible. Michelle’s political position made her do something very different with the English text: I felt it was choppy and sometimes awkward, and it was part of her political work as a translator. For Michelle, translated texts by Arab women risk being treated as commodities to be consumed. One way she tries to avoid this is that she makes sure the reader always know it’s a translation, by not allowing her or him to have too smooth a ride. In the end, we realized that we were dealing with two different texts.

What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings? 

AC: Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature. And there’s a lot of young Arabic writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. I think she has a bold, unique voice. I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go.

So what are you working on now? I know you are a doctoral candidate at Yale University—what’s your research in? 

always

AC: My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories.

What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings? 

AC: Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature.

And there’s a lot of young Arabic[-language] writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. I think she has a bold, unique voice. I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go.

So what are you working on now? I know you are a doctoral candidate at Yale University — what’s your research in? 

AC: My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories. 

Do you think that there is an Arabic avant-garde? I was reading an article the other day about how Arabic surrealism (which seems to be on the rise in Egypt) is a direct effect of colonialism. What do you think about that? 

AC: Well, I think it’s important to first draw a line between surrealism and magical realism. Surrealism in Arabic literature came from intellectuals in France, from people who came to know this branch and the artistic relationships between them, and brought it over to Arabic-speaking countries. As a result, there seems to be a first-world vs. third-world relationship.

There was a discussion in intellectual circles which exploded after Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s winning the Nobel Prize, like this placed Latin American literature in the realm of world literature — where would Arabic literature stand? And then [Naguib] Mahfouz won Nobel Prize in 1988, and we started questioning the role of Arabic literature within world literature. This was then seen as a chance for cultural exchange — there was a relationship, a solidarity in third world countries: there are certain similarities in South America and the Middle East, and this lead to a chance for literary exchange, and a  chance to be taken translated and taken seriously in world literature.

Secondly, in incorporating magical realism into the Arabic model, it was honestly less to do with post-colonialism and third world solidarity, and more with post-national consciousness. Engaging literature kind of broke down, became more individualistic, and the pan-Arabic mentality kind of didn’t work anymore.

Magical realism became something more to do with dealing with minority identities and the history of people who did not benefit from national identities and literature. Because minorities always get placed against nationalism — this was a chance to better break this down. Surrealism simply doesn’t deal with identity in the same way. And of course magical realism doesn’t break completely with colonialism — the ghost of colonialism is always there — but it just presents a different set of priorities.

*

Alexandra Chreiteh is is Mellon-Bridge Assistant Professor of Arabic and International Literary and Visual Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and is the author of two novels, Always Coca-Cola and Ali and his Russian Mother.

Rachael Daum works as the Communications and Awards Manager of the American Literary Translators Association. Her original work and translations have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Two Lines Journal, EuropeNow, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. 

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