World Literature Weekend
During the three-day World Literature Weekend organized by the London Review Bookshop in the Bloomsbury area of central London, writers from more than 15 countries took part in nine events on the overarching theme: language and exile.
The bookshop’s director of bookselling Andrew Stilwell said the focus was “writers who have changed their country or their language or both, whether through choice or compulsion. We want to hear how they have made their experiences heard across frontiers and how they have used the language and literature of one country to understand and contribute to that of another.”
The Middle East and North Africa region was well represented in the program. On the evening of the first day there was a discussion at the London Review Bookshop between the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and British writer Jeremy Harding, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books.
Harding described Khoury as “a man of many attributes”. In addition to his fiction writing Khoury edits the weekly cultural supplement of An Nahar, and he has been involved in Palestinian activism for more than 40 years. He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and has taught at universities in Lebanon and the US.
Harding recalled that Khoury’s famous novel on the Palestinians, “Gate of the Sun”, had made such a “huge difference” to Harding’s way of seeing things that in 2006 he wrote to Khoury and arranged to visit him in Beirut. The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said described Khoury as giving “voice to rooted exiles and trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages.”
Harding and Khoury talked about Khoury’s 1981 novel “White Masks”, which was recently published by Archipelago Books of New York in an English translation by Maia Tabet.
The novel starts with the discovery of the corpse of a disappeared civil servant in a garbage dump. The narrator tries to piece together the story of the dead man from the voices of some of those who knew him. Khoury said: “The job of literature is not to tell us what happened, but to question our knowledge and way of seeing. There are different possibilities and versions, the many versions of reality.”
Multiple versions are central in the novel “Yalo”, the central figure of which is a young man detained during the civil war on charges of robbery and rape. His interrogators force to write the story of his life. Khoury’s latest novel is due to be published in Arabic in December, and he is now working on a sequel to “Gate of the Sun”.
Another session during the weekend took the form of a discussion between two Arab novelists who write in English and are long-time residents of London – Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif and Libyan Hisham Matar. The intention was to explore the way in which living in one language and writing in another “can create a space for languages and cultures to meet.”
The two authors read excerpts from their latest fiction works to an appreciative audience. It is 11 years since a book of fiction by Soueif was published. Her 1999 second novel “The Map of Love” was short-listed for Britain’s leading literary prize, the Man Booker, but since then her writing energies have been diverted into essays and reportage. In 2004 Bloomsbury published a collection of her essays, “Mezzaterra: Fragments of the Common Ground”. She launched in 2008 the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest). The novel on which Soueif is now working moves between present-day and ancient Egypt.
Hisham Matar’s fiction has echoes of the extraordinary circumstances of his own life, as the son of Libyan opposition activist Jaballa Matar who was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Libya. Nothing has been heard from him since the early years of his incarceration, but at the beginning of this year Hisham received news that his father had been seen in a prison in 2002.
Matar’s debut novel “In the Country of Men”, published by the Penguin imprint Viking, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006. His second novel, due to be published next spring, is about a man who is haunted by the absence of his father. Matar described it as being concerned with “the existential reality of living with inconclusive loss”.
Ben Jelloun said his exile is a linguistic exile, and that “my writing in another language allowed me to say all kinds of things that I wouldn’t necessarily have said if I had been writing in Arabic.” His parents did not speak a word of French and “I was writing in a language they couldn’t understand. I wrote things they would not have liked to have heard, especially with regard to the condition of women”.
Ben Jelloun added that exile is “something that preoccupies me every single day. I write a lot about immigration and about those who are exiled. Even when I am back in my country Morocco I still feel in exile.” His latest novel to appear in English translation is “Leaving Tangier”.
Atiq Rahimi, who lives in Paris, wrote his first books in Afghan Persian, starting with the 2000 novella “Earth and Ashes”, followed by “A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear”.
Atiq said that after visiting Afghanistan in 2002 for the first time in 18 years, “I suddenly realized that I could no longer write in my mother tongue, and so when I wrote ‘The Patience Stone’ I wrote it in French.” Polly McLean’s English translation is published by Other Press in the US and Chatto & Windus in the UK.
Atiq said: “I would never have written ‘The Patience Stone’ in my mother tongue. I might have written about women who are victims, or who have to wear the veil, and talked about their social conditions, but I would never have written something that was provocative. I would never have written about sexuality in the way that I write about it in that particular book.”
Appearing alongside Ben Jelloun and Rahimi was the Iraqi-born Jewish writer Eli Amir, who left Baghdad for Israel in 1950 at the age of 13 and has never returned. Amir said: “We felt we were in exile when we were in Iraq, and when we came to Israel we again felt we were in exile.” In Israel the Iraqi Jews were newcomers encountering an entirely different culture with a different language and which knew “almost nothing about Arab culture and Arab countries.”
It took him more than 20 years to start writing books, and his first novel, “Scapegoat”, was about the ordeal of changing identity in a new society. It was with his second novel “The Dove Flyer” (also known as “Farewell Baghdad”) that he drew on his memories of Iraq. “Every time I want to remember Baghdad I read a chapter of my book.” Halban of London recently published the English translation from Hebrew, by Hillel Halkin, of the novel which is set in Baghdad in 1950, a time of increasing difficulty for Iraqi Jews.
Amir noted that three or four writers from Arab countries have become famous in Israel – and his writing is part of the school curriculum – but he complained that in bookshops their works are not considered part of mainstream literary culture but are consigned to shelves for Arab, “Oriental” or “ethnic” writers.