Yasmina Jraissati on How She Got Her Start as a Literary Agent

This is part of a multi-part discussion with literary agent Yasmina Jraissati, founder and director of RAYA Agency, based between Lebanon, France, and wherever Yasmina happens to be. The conversation began as part of a panel at the 2022 DC Arab Literature Festival and continued over Zoom. In this first part, Yasmina talks about how she got her start, and what brought her to agenting Arabic literature in other languages.

By M Lynx Qualey

I know you already addressed this a little at Narrating the Middle East: The DC Arab Literature Festival 2022, but: How you got your start in agenting? Why a literary agent? 

It is a very personal story. I know I mentioned 9/11, and this was definitely a trigger, because I realized not only that I liked literature, but I realized there was a need for it as well. 

BEIRUT, LEBANON: Yasmina Jraissati, literary agent, pictured at her home in Beirut. Credit: Jacob Russell.

I have a very particular relationship to Arabic—I was raised as a French-speaking Lebanese, which in Lebanon made sense for my parents, coming from their background, but to me today in retrospect, it doesn’t make sense at all, and I don’t understand how they made that choice. They didn’t make a choice, actually, it just naturally came to them, because they had belonged to this milieu. But I suffered a lot from it growing up. As a teenager, I was very aware that I belonged to a very small group of people, and I felt I couldn’t reach out to other people outside that group, because of my accent, because of my limitations in Arabic, I was immediately identified as Christian middle-class. So it’s very hard when you want to socialize as a teenager, suddenly you have your family showing up with you in the background because you’re speaking in a certain way. 

So I really suffered, and I was so aware that I was unable to speak Arabic in public. And also, the way Arabic was taught, and is still taught in schools, at least in Lebanon, and I think in other places, is very unattractive—it’s almost repulsive. The books are ugly, the teachers are not happy, they’re very old-school. When I think of قواعد, قواعد is so much fun, and if only it was taught in this way. 

But all the teachers I had made it a point to humiliate me, because my Arabic was weak. I’ll never forget one teacher who once invited me in front of the class, because I had the lowest grade in composition, and she had me read my composition to the class. Everybody knew I had the lowest grade, because they used to give the papers from the highest to the lowest grade, and she said, ‘Your colleague here got the highest grade in French composition.’ So I don’t understand what the pedagogy of this is.

The same was true as a university student, the teacher told me: you’ll never be able to speak in Arabic. The whole approach, there’s just guilt that comes with it, and there’s a whole relationship to language that is very heavy with the colonial, post-colonial. 

And so I really had to go back to Arabic on my own. So in my twenties, when I was in Canada, and I really wanted to travel—I really thought that Lebanon wasn’t home, that there was no room for me—and it was only when I traveled that I felt how Lebanese I was. From a distance, I realized that I was actually very different from all these people, and I understood what I was.

And because I love literature so much, and because my uncle is Elias Khoury, and he always kind of told me, Why don’t you speak Arabic? I decided to read one of his books, which was Gate of the Sun, باب الشمس. And I didn’t expect to understand it, but I did. And I loved it. I was immersed in this book, and I loved it so much, and it made me realize how much I was probably missing.

And so I started reading more أدبي, and then I faced Elias Khoury once, in New York, and I told him everything in my heart, and it was the beginning of a strong friendship, and he was in New York at the time, and I was too, and he introduced me to all the modern classics, like Emile Habibi. 

Starting from there, I really started developing an appetite for Arabic literature. And it was so empowering—it was against all odds. I had been so convinced this was beyond reach, and it wasn’t. It was very hard of course, and a lot of words I didn’t understand, and I had to understand from the context, because dictionaries don’t necessarily help, and you don’t always feel like stopping. But eventually, I really made a lot of progress. So I felt like, Okay, this is my domain, this is literature. It wasn’t Arabic any more, it was literature. And that was my way in.

And then?

In New York that year, I was doing an internship in publishing. At first, I was with Akashic Books, but then I moved to Seven Stories Press. It was all this post-9/11 atmosphere. And I felt like I reclaimed my Arab identity. I’m Lebanese, I’m Arab, and I felt that I have things to say, and that people didn’t anything about the region. And I was so surprised, actually, especially as we know so much about US pop culture and history and presidents and foreign policy. We knew so much, and they knew really nothing. 

It was very weird to be there. It’s like my brain was split in half. It’s not that I justified them, but I knew where the attacks came from, and why. And I also of course understood the pain in the US, clearly. But a lot of people who surrounded me, out on the street, didn’t know, and they had these huge signs that said WHY. And it struck me: what do you mean, why? This really stayed with me. I thought they knew how the US was perceived in our part of the region as evil. Of course me growing up in a Christian background, US as evil was never the narrative, but still, US foreign policy being destructive was definitely a narrative, to the point that when I was a child, I wrote a letter to the American president that I asked my father to mail. 

From that point on, when I moved to France to continue my studies—because I missed academia, and I missed home, I felt I was too far—I still wanted to keep a foot in publishing, because I loved this world. And so I started interning with Farouk Mardam Bey, and at the same time, I started looking for jobs, to work in parallel with my studies, because I didn’t have good financing. I interviewed with so many publishing houses, and so many big editors. I never got a job, because internships in France are a different story, but people did receive me, and I did systemically get the question: If you read a book in Arabic, we’d love to know which book—tell us, let us know.

So things kind of fell into place. I felt it was a thing to do because people didn’t know us, but at the same time, even if they wanted to know us, they had no way to get to know us—of course, in the way that I think is interesting, which is literature. I felt like literature needed to travel more, and I felt like beyond a few big names, a lot of great names, people didn’t know of. 

And when I was at Seven Stories Press, Gate of the Sun had just been published in French, I gave the French manuscript to Jill [Schoolman], who was at the time an editor with Seven Stories Press, who loved it. So Dan Simon told Elias he needed an agent, and he introduced him to his Tom Colchie, who took him on as a client. And then when Jill founded her own house, Archipelago, she took Elias, and she still is his publisher today.

This kind of stayed with me, although I didn’t put it together at the time. I just realized that books can reach people, but somehow they don’t.

I started talking to a friend who was a scout, and I was also interning with him, and he told me: what you’re talking about is agenting. This is what you need to be. 

At the time, I didn’t see it as a business. It was a passion, I just wanted to get to know people—which is why the website is dot-org, not dot-com. But my friend at the time told me that you can’t be an NGO, and today I completely agree with him. You can’t be not-for-profit, because publishers will not trust you. If you want to be able to sell rights, you need to be in the economic system. They will only buy the rights to a book if it’s good for them from a business perspective, and that’s the language you need to speak.

This is how I started agenting. It was very stressful. He would take me to all these French cocktail parties, to introduce me to people, and I felt like an impostor. He would sometimes leave me, and I would be so embarrassed, since I couldn’t approach anyone. I was just standing there with my glass of wine. I felt that whoever I approached, that I owed them, if they spoke to me. I felt so out of place, but he kept taking me. 

It took me a long time to feel comfortable, because I always felt there were rules I never learned. I felt like there was a book everybody read, except me, about how to behave and how to work. 

And this is when it began?

Well, 2004 is really when it started, because Arab countries were the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was such a funny thing—Arab countries—even at the time, I thought, Why couldn’t they invite one Arab country? Or you say the language. But anyway, whatever limitations, it had a great impact on many things. For me, I was attending all the panels and talks. Nobody was there. It’s Frankfurt—you’re there to buy rights, you’re not there to attend panels, but I did.  And I listened to all these authors, and I approached them, and we were all staying at the same hotel. And I felt a bit less like an impostor there. Because one, they were very supportive. And two, because I did have access to something they didn’t have access to. Even if they didn’t know how small this access was, in theory, was I was in Paris.

Can you tell the story of selling your first book?

It was very long. From 2004-2008, I couldn’t sell a single book. I would see a lot of people, and my friend would say, You have to call him, call him back! And once I was so insistent. Of course, you have to call back, but there’s a lot of finesse in how much you can call back. When you need to step back. Now it’s very natural to me, I know when I need to step away, and I know when I can step in, and that changes for every book. 

If you’re an American agent, selling a best-seller, people will call you anyway. But if you’re an agent, selling Arabic literature, you have very different rhythms. 

That was very hard. Because every rejection, I felt like I was being rejected. They couldn’t be rejecting the book, because they hadn’t read it. They only read the pitch. At the time I didn’t have money to get samples—I didn’t even think of samples! It seems obvious today, but at the time nothing was obvious. Until eventually I sold the first book, عين وردة, by Jabbour Douaihy, to Farouk Mardam Bey, who already knew the book, and was already planning to do it. But Jabbour asked him to go through me. 

But this gave me some courage, because I could say I sold a book. 

The next big thing was Khaled Khalifa. In parallel, I started talking to co-agents, and I think this was a very wise decision on my part. Because as an agent, you don’t want to share. The cut is so small, you get 15 percent. If you lose five percent, that’s a lot. But at the same time I was very young, I was unknown, and I didn’t even know who to talk to beyond Paris. I knew the names of the publishers, but I didn’t know which editors, and that’s the tricky part. So I started teaming up with agents. In 2004, when I went to Frankfurt, these were the meetings I had. 

And interestingly, unlike publishers, who I felt were very reluctant, agents weren’t. They could see the potential. This was so new, and as agents, of course, you jump on things that are new. 

This was a good thing, because it allowed me to have a presence in many places at the same time. It was also complicated, figuring out how to make this cost-efficient, and at the time Arabella Cruse, who was representing me for the Scandinavian countries, had a lot of insight to share. She had this marketing perspective that I didn’t have. And so I started working on these booklets that were very complete, because I realized that people didn’t just need information on the author, they needed information on the Arabic publishing scene. Because if you just tell them about an author, it’s hard for them to put them in a context. But if you say more about how the industry works, and who are the actors, and the journey of that particular author, then it starts making more sense. Meeting after meeting after meeting, the knowledge accumulates, and they have enough background to appreciate what you’re telling them about. And this took a lot of time. 

It sounds like a huge investment of time!

I still do it. If I meet publishers who have never heard of Arabic literature, I’ll spend half the meeting, giving them my take on the industry. Even if they end up buying books from someone else, that’s not important. We need to broaden the horizon and the market. This time, he might buy from someone else, but maybe next time around, he’ll come back to me. It makes sense for all of us who are interested in Arabic literature to keep spreading awareness, because I think it benefits everyone in the end. 

And then Khaled Khalifa was the big break? 

In Praise of Hatred, Bompiani bought it (for translation into Italian), and it was a very large advance for me at the time. This really gave me more faith. Again, at the time, I was very idealistic, I didn’t do it for the money, I thought I’d be an academic and I’d do this on the side. Actually, it turned out to eb the other way around.

It just gave me a sense that, okay, people are interested. People do want books, if you know which books to tell them about. 

But at the same time, some of the things they’re looking for, I didn’t want to push. I would try and correct it. No, this is not what you should be looking for. This is what you should be looking for. So with time, I was able to kind of push this message. In the beginning, I was not very aware of what was going on, and it’s still a complicated question, I find, even for me. 

Basically, when I really felt okay, this is really a solid project, was when one author did a complete cycle: sold Khaled Khalifa to more than one language, and Samar Yazbek as well, and they were published, the press was positive. Sales were maybe not as extraordinary as we hoped, but there were some sales. And so with that, I got stronger, and then Bompiani was interested in hearing me more. So you grow with the authors, in my experience at least. 

But the first eight years, I almost stopped many times.

Find out more about the books Yasmina represents at rayaagency.org/. Part II coming soon.