Researching the Past: A Conversation with Iman Mersal

It’s publication week for Traces of Enayat. Read an excerpt from the book, an excerpt from Enayat al-Zayyat’s Love & Silenceand, here, a conversation with the author.

By Tugrul Mende

In Iman Mersal’s award-winning Traces of Enayat, translated by Robin Moger and published by And Other Stories, she takes the reader on a journey to discover who Enayat al-Zayyat (1936-63) was. In her genre-encompassing book, Mersal works to uncover the mystery of Enayat by going through personal and official archives, helping us understand the life of Enayat and the times in which she was living. In this interview, Mersal talks about the process of writing about Enayat and what it meant to be a woman writer in Cairo in the 1960s.

When did you hear first about Enayat al-Zayyat and what were your initial thoughts about her?

Iman Mersal: When I picked up al-Zayyat’s Love and Silence from a used book stand in 1993, I was a young poet living in Cairo and searching for my own voice. I remember thinking: who is Enayat? Is she related to the famous writer Latifa al-Zayyat? Why had I never seen the title of her novel in any accounts of Arab novels or Arab female writing? I was captivated by the novel and its language; I related to the narrator’s internal journey and her whispering voice, fleeing depression. Questions about the absence of Enayat and her novel from the Arab literary canon are what first sent me on this journey. But my goal was not just to bring her novel into the canon of Arab literature, or Western knowledge about Arab female writers. Reading the past with its individual and collective wounds is my motive for telling Enayat’s story.

What were the 1960s like for an author like Enayat, and what challenges did she face?

IM: After the 1952 revolution and blooming of the dominant discourses of nationhood, nationalism, and progress, there was a formula for  what to expect from a good female writer: connecting women’s questions to the nation’s struggle for liberation (or rather to the regime’s view of this liberation).

Latifa al-Zayyat’s (1923-1996) first novel The Open Door, which was published in 1960 and was made into a film in 1963, can be considered the seminal text written by female Arab writer in the 1960s. The novel beautifully entwined the challenges of womanhood with the resistance of colonialism and patriarchy, between the national cause and women’s liberation. This formula became the model for novels by good female writers for at least three decades.  Latifa al-Zayyat belongs to the generation that immediately preceded Enayat’s. Since the 1940s, she had been steeped in political consciousness and activism. Enayat was not afforded this opportunity and unlike Latifa, she was never affiliated with the Egyptian Left. In life and death alike, she remained on the margins, a writer outside the milieu of cultural exchange, without mentors or foremothers or contemporaries. Even now, fifty years after the publication of her first novel, it is difficult to assign her to any group or movement.

For someone like Enayat who came from a bourgeois family and German education, who had to study Arabic in order to  write a novel in it, I imagine that her big challenge was alienation. Her question was about her internal journey to overcome depression and her failure to fit in.

What kind of book did you want to write when you first started your research about Enayat?

IM: When I started my search for Enayat, before even imagining that it might become a book, I was exploring the literary archive. It turned out that the official archive did not recognize her. Later on, I discovered that her family had destroyed most of her papers, including the draft of her second novel about the German Egyptologist Ludwig Keimer. The destruction of Enayat’s archive felt like a catastrophe, but its absence sent me chasing the traces of its erasure and showed me that my true ambition was not to see her life laid out in the pages of a book. I think the book emerged from the absence of the archive. Then another set of challenges emerged, such as how to tell her story, without my speaking for her. My attempts to write this book felt impossible at the beginning. It was not to be a biography. It wasn’t to be an academic book or a novel. But there was an enlightening moment when I visualized my own journey, my own search, as itself the story. It felt like: this is the path that makes sense. Fragments from her diary, my memoir, other voices, and pieces from the archives started to find their place in the story.

Did you identify with Enayat while writing about her?

IM: There is a moment of intersection between us; it might be her suicide in 1963 and my state of mind when I read her only novel in 1993, the question of individuality that we asked as young women writers in different contexts. This intersection worked as a spiritual guide; in every other regard, we remain different.

What challenges did you come across while writing the book?

IM: There were the common challenges in writing, such as feeling lost sometimes, or having doubts about what you are doing. But in the process of writing Traces, as I said before, there were moments of desperation concerning the absence of the official and private archive. Then the question of how to tell her story, without my speaking for her.

Can you tell us more about the novel which Enayat wrote? And how does it locate in the literary landscape of her time?

IM: Enayat finished writing Love and Silence in 1960, and she kept trying to publish it during       the three years before her death. Love and Silence did not fit the formula of what is expected from a good female writer of the time. It did not make the parallel between women and National liberation like The Open Door of Latifa al- Zayaat. The protagonist Najla fails in every escape, from taking the job she had hoped would be her gateway to the world, to the love and freedom that leaves her at a loss. Najla is depressed, insomniac, alienated. She feels as if she were born at the wrong time.

The language in Love and Silence is both fresh and refreshing. Sometimes cold, sometimes sentimental, it can feel uncanny, too, as though translated. There are so many passages that read like prose poems.

You are a poet, translator, and professor. How does your writing & research as an academic intertwine with your prose, vs. how it affects your poetry?

IM: I really don’t distinguish between all of these things. If you have an urgent question, for example about motherhood, or mortality, or anything else, you have so many ways to tackle them. Academic research is one way, creative writing is another.

From inside, I don’t divide myself at all. Sometimes you are in the classroom and you are inspired by something a student says. I am learning all the time.  Knowledge or producing knowledge is essential to creative writing.

How do you know whether a literary idea (or…however they occur to you?) will suit poetry or prose? Or does it not start with an … idea? Or do they overlap? Do you, for instance, write poetry about dialect as you also write prose about it?

IM: Poetry and prose always intertwine in fine writing. However, we recognize poetry when it exists in any given text, orality, or even dreams, with all of our senses. Poetry is not about ideas; it involves our memory and being when we encounter it.

As someone who writes in different genres, I feel poetry is the most challenging. Poetry is unpredictable; you can’t force it. In Traces of Enayat as well as my other nonfiction work, the process is different. I felt occupied by the project for years, and there were extensive visits to different archives, readings, interviews, and enlightening moments that can shift questions and narrative alike.

Was it hard to find a publisher for the book?

IM: I am lucky, I don’t have any problem publishing my work in Arabic. My publisher was waiting for me to send it along. Actually, the cover was already created when I postponed the submission of the manuscript for another year.

Publishing this book in English was not as easy as in other languages. In my opinion, one of the      reasons for this difficulty was the Anglophone firm distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and also publishers’ anxiety about genre boundaries. I learned how some publishers can take more risk      to produce experimental work written in English, while being hesitant when it is work in translation.

I’ve seen Enayat described as individual history over collective history. Does that distinction make sense to you? Enayat also seems to tell a shared story, to me — about the lives of women, about mental health treatment, about the literary landscape of the time, even if it’s through the lens of specific people and their specific concerns.

IM: It is impossible in reading the past to separate the individual history from the collective history; the former is shaped and impacted by the latter. Enayat’s life and tragic death can only be told inside an expanding map of biographies and histories, of registers, genres, and voices. Enayat is the story of the book, but it is a story that is told by tracking down the flats, schools, archaeological institutes, and sanatoriums between which Enayat divided her days. It is a story that is hard to understand without dubious antidepressants, domestic abuse, and divorce law, among so many other fragments. Enayat’s life intersects with the history of German Egyptology; the cultural apparatuses of the 1950s and 60s are side by side with the dairy trade and lives of the guardians of tombs. These contiguous worlds make up a life, and overflow it to find their place in the book.

What kind of writings influenced you?

IM: I borrow the book’s spirit from an art of ancient Arab biographers: mujaanasa (affinity). In the classical Arabic biographies, authors would wander at a whim from the subject at hand, digressing as needed to understand the subject. There were some other aspirations; my friend and fellow writer Yasser Abdellatif helpfully suggested that I reread W.G. Sebald and Patrick Modiano. In the fall of 2018 I did so, and found the process very remarkable, with great impact on my editing of the book. For example, I was planning to exclude the story of Ludwig Keimer, and eliminate many passages about mental health institutions in Egypt, etc. It was as if I were trying to tidy away a mess in order to help readers focus on Enayat’s story. But reading Sebald and Modiano persuaded me to trust my way of seeing the story, that her story is actually located in this mass of fragments, extending well beyond the immediate “facts” about her life.

Do you work differently with translators of your prose (Robin) vs. of poetry (Robyn)? Does the process go differently, now that you’ve worked with the both of them for a while now?

IM: It is different. I worked closely with Robyn Creswell during the making of The Threshold. As with Robin Moger, he started to translate as soon as he read the book and I read the first complete      draft a year later.  I would write down my notes with each draft, and he would respond, and then we would meet online to discuss it.  I really loved working with both of them.

Humor plays a significant role in your poetry; I wondered if you see humor differently in poetry and prose, and why/how playfulness or humor came to occupy a place in your poetry. Do you have a sense of the wider landscape of the use of humor in (Arabic) poetry? Of course, in the classics it’s often found but there seems to be a relatively humorless period in the late 20th century. 

IM: Humor is a way of dealing with the world and writing; it is an anti-sentimental approach, to begin with. The seriousness of Arabic poetry in the 1950s and 1960s stems from prophecy that validated political and social causes. Maybe the humor in so many poems written since the 1990s is a way of resisting the prophecy of previous poets.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.