Sahar Khalifeh: ‘I Am A Committed Writer, Or Maybe I Am An Obsessed Writer’

Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh — whose historical novels often center women’s experiences — talks, this Women in Translation Month, about the intersections of her life and writing:

By Tugrul Mende

Sahar Khalifeh published her first novel in 1974, at age 33. That first novel was serialized and turned into a radio program, and she continued to publish prolifically through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Wild Thorns, her second novel, was the first to appear in English translation, in 1984, and it was followed by several others. Last year, her classic Bab as-Saha finally appeared in Sawad Hussain’s translation as Passage to the Plaza. This year Hoopoe Fiction published her novel Hubbi al-Awal (My First and Only Love), as translated by Prof. Aida Bamia. My First and Only Love is the second novel in a planned trilogy.

How was being a novelist different from how you imagined it, when you published your first book in 1974?

Sahar Khalifeh: The difference is huge. I never imagined I would be so widely known. Of course I’d dreamed of becoming a writer since I was a teenager, but I never thought I would be able to reach this stage, I mean to be translated to other languages, and having my novels taught in foreign universities, tens of foreign universities. I never thought I would be so strong to face and stand up against those who consider my writings blasphemous or similar to national treason. When I published my first novel, I was not so clear about what I feel or believe. Through the years, more than 40 years, I developed as a writer, as a feminist, and as a deeply politicized and humanized person. Thanks to my patience and will. Through the years I learned and learned, and I am still learning.

How has the landscape changed — in terms of being a woman writer, being a Palestinian writer — since you started publishing in the 1970s?

SK: Perhaps the only difference is that a feminist woman writer like me usually focusses on female characters with strong personalities. But as for the landscape, there is no difference. It is always Palestine, Palestine under occupation. Whether this occupation is British or Israeli, it is all the same, the same atrocities, the same cruelty, and the same rebellions and revolutions.

Your work has been widely translated, into English, French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Malay, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, and more. Have you noticed that readers in different cultures read your work differently, notice different things? Are there things that you are misunderstood, wrongly emphasized?

SK: I don’t think that readers from different cultures read my novels differently or notice different things. I think that readers of novels usually read for enjoyment and a little inspiration and knowledge. Readers of novels, I think, are not skeptical like those who read works of social sciences or history. They already know that what they are reading is fiction despite the fact that, at times, that fiction might have elements of truth in it. Even when that fiction is realistic, they know that the reality they are reading is not 100% real. It is a reality that is seen through the eyes of the novelist or created by the novelist. And this is what I consider bliss because it gives me, and gives other novelists, an open space where we can play with reality, or have fun with reality, or ignore reality altogether.

Has translation from Arabic to other languages changed in the last 30 years and the reception of translations?

SK: All I can say about this is that, to my knowledge, more translations have been done. It looks like publishing houses in different parts of the world seem to be more interested in publishing literature from other cultures, not just from Arabic culture. We now read literature from Latin America, Japan, Iran, Vietnam, Korea and other countries. I don’t like to repeat the famous saying “the world is becoming a small village,“ but I have to. It is becoming a small village.

Why did you decide you wanted to write about your own life, in A Novel For My Story?

SK: Because I wanted to reveal secrets. I wanted to reveal my secrets as an oppressed Arab woman and the secret behind each novel. I wanted to teach and let others learn. I was nothing and became something. Others can learn from that, especially women. Is it worth trying? I think it is.

When did you start writing Hubbi al-Awal, and how does it stand out from your previous novels?

SK: I started writing it right after I finished writing Of Noble Origins. It took me two years to finish it. As you can see, it is a semi-historical novel. It is true that the characters are depicted while living at present, but their memories take us back to a previous time, when the struggle for liberation has started. This is a multi-layered novel. It deals with the past and present at the same time. It has fictitious characters and real characters, fictitious events and real events. This is what I tried to do in this novel and the previous one, as well as the one after. It is a part of a trilogy. In the trilogy, I tried to capture our past which leads to our present. I am a committed writer or maybe I am an obsessed writer.  I am obsessed by occupation because I live it. I witness the atrocities of occupation. I witness and live through those atrocities and still am living them.  My characters represent what I experience, what I feel, what I think and believe. My characters, in a way, are me. I am them, whether in this novel or the previous ones or after.

What is your relationship with the translator for a novel? Are you in an ongoing conversation or what does your involvement in the translation process look like?

SK: My novels have been translated into 15 languages. Unfortunately, the only foreign language I know is English. Obviously, it would be out of the question to get involved in any translation other than the English.  Even during the translation into English, the translator only asks about names or places or plants that he or she finds difficulty in translating to English.  Of course I try to help.  But most of the times I too find it difficult to give the right answer.  For example, when I am asked about the name of a specific plant or flower in English I simply say “I am sorry, I don’t know.”  In this case, the translator has to find a solution, away from me.  And I accept that.  I accept the fact that my capabilities in other languages are short. I also accept the fact that translation is not my field. So my relationship with other translators is usually vague. I only know their names. But in certain cases, I happen to meet the translator and in a way become close to her, like in the case with my translator to English, Professor Aida Bamia, and my translator to Korean, Professor Song. I was lucky enough to meet those two, face to face, and to enjoy their company as human beings. Otherwise, my relationship with other translators is only businesslike.  I only know their names.

Hubbi al-Awal has a complex story with many layers and characters. How do you work on these elements? Do you work on them separately, first the context then the characters?

SK: I usually start by choosing the plot. According to that plot, I choose my characters. When I choose my characters, it becomes easy to follow them wherever they go and live with them or be them.  I do not choose characters if I am not familiar with their backgrounds. I select them from real life.  If they are historical characters, I study their biographies very well and then let my imagination take care of the details. This is the game of writing fiction. 

Who are some of the writers you enjoy reading and re-reading?

SK: Dostoevsky and Simon De Beauvoir. Since I was a young teenager, I started reading them and I never stopped. From Dostoevsky, I learned how characters are made or should be. How they move, what they think, their inner secrets, their contradictions and complications, and how strong and helpless they are. I am fascinated by most of his work, especially Brothers Karamazov and as for De Beauvoir, what a great writer and philosopher! Have you read The Mandarins? I read the novel at least five times. And what about The Second Sex? From that book, I learned how we become women, I mean how we became the other sex. Those two writers affected me deeply. But this is not the whole truth. The truth, the real truth, is that the writer, any writer, is made by all the readings she or he makes. We are influenced not just by one or two or ten writers. We are influenced by everything we read. Whether we are aware of this fact or not makes no difference. We read, we devour. We digest what we read and grow. Just like food. Without food we never grow. Without reading we never write.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.

Excerpts of Sahar Khalifeh’s work online:

University Student, FROM A Novel For My Story, translated by Sawad Hussain

from Picture, Icon, Old Testament, translated by Marilyn Booth

From My First and Only Love, Translated by Aida Bamia

From Passage to the Plaza, translated by Sawad Hussain