Lit & Found: Samar Yazbek Talks ‘Planet of Clay’

PEN Transmissions has up a new interview between editor Will Forrester and Syrian novelist, journalist, and screenwriter Samar Yazbek. The interview, titled “The Epoch of Human Shame,” was translated by Leri Price.

In it, Yazbek talks about her acclaimed novel al-Masha’a, translated to English by Leri Price as Planet of Clay. The book was longlisted for the Prix Femina in its French translation, by Khaled Osman, and shortlisted for the 2021 National Book Award in Price’s English translation. Yazbek also talks about translation, fear, and her multiple identities.

She says, among other things, that people have misunderstood the main character in Planet of Clay:

In Arabic, the novel is called Al-Masha’a. ‘Al-Masha’un’, or ‘The Walkers’, were Aristotle’s followers. Rima doesn’t stop walking because she is also claiming freedom of thought. Usually, when there is a discussion about women’s issues in the Arab world, we speak about their sexual freedom, or legal equality with men. Rima wants to liberate her mind, and to go beyond it, so she objects, and her method of objecting to societal violence and the violence of war is to stop talking and to walk without stopping. This is the opposite to what has been said about Rima in the media – she is not ill, nor does he have a disability.

She also talked about her close relationship with her translator:

For me, Leri isn’t just a translator. Leri is my writing partner in English. We discussed phrases, concepts and technical terms, even some words that were written in ‘amiya (spoken Syrian Arabic). There was a great cooperation between me and her, but she doesn’t need me much. Her relationship to Arabic literature is outstanding. I trust her, and after discussing I leave her with the freedom to make her own choices. This was my first experience with her, and we are collaborating on my new novel. I hope that she will remain my translator because we work well together, and I have complete trust and confidence in her. [Translator’s note: I feel the same about working with Samar!]

And her return to novel-writing after a period focused on activism and nonfiction:

Writing novels had been a continual fundamental of my life; even though I have several identities (as an activist, a journalist), when I look deep inside my soul I know that my fundamental identity was and still is a novelist. So when I wrote this novel it was like Odysseus returning to Ithaca. Yes, through writing the novel I returned to myself, and I think I am better as a result.

Read the whole interview at PEN Transmissions.