By Essayed Taha
Yasmina Jraissati has a PhD in Cognitive Science, specializing in the relationship between culture and perception. Passionate of literature, Jraissati felt the need to build bridges between Arabic books and the rest of the world, and started the RAYA Agency for Arabic literature in 2004. She was shortlisted twice to the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards in the agency category (in 2019 and 2020).
Jraissati represents literary and upmarket fiction in Arabic to international markets. Throughout the years, Jraissati has succeeded in placing titles of her list in prestigious homes across the world, in over twenty languages. Two of these titles were shortlisted to the US’s National Book Award, while another was shortlisted to the International Man Booker Prize. Others have received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal of Literature, the International Prize of Arabic Fiction, the PEN Pinter, PEN Tucholsky, or the French Best Book Award in Foreign literature.
Jraissati also currently works as the Publishing Manager for the MENA region at Storytel, the Swedish audio content streaming platform.
In response to the first question about the challenges she faced and how she adapted, Jraissati wrote:
“The regional scene has greatly evolved over the years. When I started agenting back in 2004, Arab authors barely knew what rights were, or if they did, they didn’t see or understand their value. This has probably to do with the fact that at the time, being translated seemed, for most, like an almost impossible quest. The Western publishing world, since these are the main territories where authors sought to get into, seemed protected behind high walls, for most. Conversely, international publishers were back then very surprised to meet an agent who spoke their language — and I don’t mean English or French — sell them Arabic books.
“Today, some twenty years later, I think it is fair to say that overall, many more Arabic books are being translated, including into English, which is famously the hardest language to get into. The fact that, for example, Arab authors like Khaled Khalifa and Samar Yazbek both made it to the shortlist of the prestigious National Book Award, or that Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail made so much noise in the press, is an important signal. It means that beyond the geopolitical content that might have initially drawn people’s attention to Arabic literature, the value of the literature itself is being recognized. We need to make sure this continues, partly by giving more recognition at home to books that have true literary value.”
As for the second question about what brings her happiness, Jraissati responded:
“I think any reader will relate to the pleasure of sharing a book they love. And how exciting it is when the person you shared the book with loves it too! Agenting brings me a satisfaction of a similar nature. When I succeed in selling a book, I think of all the people who will read it in translation, and I feel genuinely happy about my modest contribution to their discovery. And before the book even reaches the reader, there are the co-agents I work with, the editors I pitch it to, the translators: so many interesting and passionate people from so many different places that I get to meet, and tell about the book. There is something wonderful about meeting with people who have the same passion for stories. We may be very different, we may see each other only once a year for half an hour, but the moment we start talking about the rights they bought, or the book I’m selling, we’re speaking the same language. We say what we love in a book, what we find funny or painful; we say how the story makes us feel.
“In some strange way, it is a rare instance of an intimate and emotional connection with people who, by many standards, you would say you barely know. That’s the connection a book creates between authors and readers, or more generally between people: they may not know each other, they may, and in most cases, never meet. Yet, they read the same book, they get transported by the same moments in the story, they empathize, hate, or fall in love with the same characters. This is what keeps me going, connecting to people through beautiful stories, and thinking that I can contribute to other people connecting, too.”
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