By M Lynx Qualey
Headed up by Sandra Hetzl, Katharine Halls, and Alice Guthrie, 10/11 is “a literary agency operating in Europe that specializes in bold, exciting, contemporary Arabic literature.” They represent a select group of literary writers that includes Haytham El-Wardany, Rasha Abbas, Ahmed Naji, Bushra Khalfan, and Mohammad Rabie. Here, two of 10/11’s agents talk about their tastes and selection criteria, how they divide their work, and what they love (and don’t) about literary agenting.
Where does the name 10/11 come from?
Sandra: There are several aspects to the name. Firstly, I was looking for something that would be easy to pronounce in both Arabic and English – and what could be more convenient than numbers, which can be written out and pronounced in their own way in each language? But as to why these specific numbers: they pay tribute to the years 2010/2011, which saw the beginnings of the popular uprisings in many Arabic-speaking countries. For me, those uprisings represent (among other things of course) an urge to express, and they were characterized by a real joy in experimentation—including in a literary sense. But the numbers 10/11 harbour another ambiguity: when you hear “teneleven” in English, your mind will think readily of 9/11, the date that tragically prompted a wave of curiosity towards the Arabic speaking region, and also, peripherally, its literary production. But it was a hostile curiosity, a know-your-enemy-curiosity, which gave rise to the publication of a slew of books that had to satisfy a narrow and very specific set of interests. In this sense, 10/11 heralds the turning of a page.
How would you describe your interests as an agency, your criteria for selecting writers to represent?
Katharine: First and foremost, the titles we represent are all beautifully written. There are also some salient basic facts about our writers: they’re mostly relatively young, for example, and they’re scattered across the major cities of not only the Middle East, but also Europe and North America. Then there’s our personal tastes. As readers, we very much like distinctive voices—like Rasha Abbas’s, which is so unmistakable (I always think of her as a sort of Arabic Miranda July). We’re also interested in urgent, internationally relevant writing which feels like it’s addressing the times and circumstances we live in. I think this sets us apart somewhat within the world of translated Arabic literature, in that we aren’t really interested as such in colorful tales from far-flung locales, or behind-the-scenes accounts of the hot topics the West is interested in. We want to hear from authors who are living through the ravages of late capitalism, environmental degradation, and resurgent right-wing populism just like we are, and who have an exciting and thoughtful perspective to share that will be meaningful to readers across the world.
You’ve got an impressive lineup of writers; did you approach them, do writers approach you, or is it a combination? Do you take submissions?
Sandra: Most of our writers were approached by us. In fact, many of them are writers with whom we already had longstanding working relationships. Personally speaking, I originally came across many of them through the tips of other writers or attentive readers with whom I share similar tastes. Also, being a tiny boutique agency, and to make sure we can work at the highest standards and maintain a distinctive profile, we can only take care of a certain number of writers and titles. We wouldn’t have time to read through lots of submissions, for example, though of course we’re always grateful for interesting hints and recommendations. But, as Katharine already mentioned, the most crucial factor for us in choosing a writer is our taste—we make no bones about that. All in all, we’re growing slowly and in a very organic way. And in early 2024, Katharine and Alice are heading to Morocco to do some reading and translation, so we may soon add a few Moroccan titles to our list.
Do different writers “belong” to different agents? Or do you promote the same writers, but in different arenas? Basically, how are you sure you’re not repeating each other’s work or working at cross-purposes—particularly Katharine and Alice, since I suppose Sandra is mostly working on selling into German?
Katharine: We don’t have too rigid a setup right now: there are only three of us, so we’re able to work very closely together and be flexible. We mostly each look after individual authors, reflecting the fact that we have pre-existing relationships with the authors in question and are really passionate about their work (this is the whole point of 10/11, after all). I look after Shady Lewis, for example, and I sell his work in German as well as English (Auf Dem Nullmeridian, which came out with Hoffmann und Campe in early summer this year, was my first foray into the German publishing world). But in other cases we do divide the labor by language: with Haytham el-Wardany, whose work Sandra and I had both already translated (our shared love of his writing was one of the first things we connected over), I’m handling English and Sandra German. The nice thing is that we’re all able to share contacts and resources, which makes our work more efficient, not to mention companionable, than working as a lone translator.
What do you enjoy about literary agenting — and what is not quite so enjoyable?
Sandra: What I enjoy about literary agenting is basically the reason why I founded 10/11 in the first place. As a literary translator, I don’t see myself as someone who merely reacts to commissions from publishers; I refuse to be a means for the realization of preexisting ideas. My colleagues and I have a far deeper insight into the interesting stuff going on in Arabic literary production than most Western publishers have. So I wanted to change the direction in which the knowledge flows. To make a difference not only in how things are translated, but also what is being published in the first place. I wanted to create a platform and a position from which we can tell publishers about our discoveries. What I don’t like about agenting though, if I’m honest, is having to deal with numbers and contracts, but luckily that’s only a part of it.
Salma El Tarzi’s forthcoming works sound incredible, which made me realize what a wide range of work you’re representing—graphic novels, playtexts, short stories, novels, memoirs, and beyond. Does that present particular challenges?
Katharine: Salma’s work is incredible! She is such a talented artist, sharp political thinker, and beautiful writer. Her art-book-cum-memoir An Attempt to Remember My Face is, in my view, one of the most moving and thoughtful pieces of literature to have been written about the Egyptian revolution of 2011 (you can read a little snippet of it in my translation on Asymptote). To your question: it has certainly been a challenge for me thinking how to place that particular book, because the art publishing world isn’t one I know well, but I’ve been learning as I go along. Luckily our more straightforward fiction and non-fiction titles don’t present too much of a challenge in that regard. But it’s true that we have to try to have a really good overview of the publishing world, which can feel like a mammoth task.
Are you open to new members of 10/11, for instance if someone was a good fit and wanted to sell rights into… Turkish?
Sandra: Absolutely. I always keep my ears and eyes open for colleagues translating literature from Arabic into other languages—that’s how 10/11 went from being just me to being the three of us. But finding a good fit can be quite a challenge. It isn’t easy to find someone who’s first and foremost a brilliant translator (or a reader or literary critic), who shares your taste and attitude, and also has the enthusiasm, initiative, and belief in the broader vision of 10/11. Maybe I should take your question as an opportunity to say this: I’m so grateful that Katia and Alice are part of 10/11.
If someone told you that they wanted to set up as a literary agent, representing Arabic literature in translation, what advice would you give them (if any)?
Katharine: Go for it! Translators already do so much of an agent’s job that they’re pretty well qualified. It’s just a question of getting started and learning the ropes.