Published on Perigee December 1, 2014
The following is a “round-email” discussion between Issue 4 contributors– Author Hisham Bustani and Arabic to English translator Thoraya El-Rayyes– with Poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Their communication investigates experimental form, the commodification of art, and questions what literature can, and should, give to the world. A special thanks to Apogee Staffer F. T. Kola who made this possible.
Cecca: Dear Naomi, Thoraya, and Hisham, It is my pleasure to put the three of you in touch. This is all a bit of an experiment. Thanks for being willing to give this a go. I have a couple questions I’ll throw out to set this dialog in motion: I was really taken by Hisham’s form. “The City is in My Chest” begins as a nonfiction narrative that slowly transforms into a work of fiction. It strikes me that in the US there is a lack of experimentation with form in prose. I am interested to know more about the author’s stylistic choices. And, as you are all aware, in the US there is a near blackout of non-anglophonic literature. In your opinions, what does contemporary Arab literature look like?
Hisham: Cecca, I regard experimentation as the future of literature and arts, in addition to engaging the boundaries between the arts. The classical forms have exhausted themselves (stylistically) on the hands of great masters who left a great canon of writing. Writers who want to write creatively cannot stay static at the point that other writers have used to the maximum. To be creative is to create; creation is an ongoing process of generating new techniques and styles, and tackling new themes and subjects, exploring new depths and angles. Therefore experimentation is not just a requirement but a necessity for modern creative writing.
Experimentation is not a shot in the dark. That is the biggest insult to experimentalism. I mean an intentional process of a person who knows what he/she is doing. The person practicing creative literary experimentation should be based on solid intellectual grounds and has a “philosophy for the new form”; something like Malevich’s supermatism, or Mondrian’s neoplasticism, or the surrealist manifesto, or the dada movement. Those were “experimental” movements that had the strength of knowledge behind them: an understanding of the state of the art at their respective time and the conception of how should art be.
Experimentalism is a conscious literary “revolution” in form and themes that despises the ignorant “artist”, and it is based on a deep understanding and absorption of the “classical” with the aim of surpassing it, creating “the new”. That is why I opted to put the word ‘revolution’ between quotation marks, it is because experimentation is a continuation, a sort of a sublimation in the creative form; it is not a coup on the “old”, but taking it further up the road. In time, the new experimental forms will become classical as well, and other “experimentations” will be necessary to carry on.
Contemporary Arab literature looks like a mess. The new “trend” of towards “the novel” and nothing else has been catching up really fast with all the prizes and the “stardom” focused there. The reason –as I see it- is because the novel has transformed into THE literary commodity of the publishing industry, to take a sharp position against it nowadays is to take a strong position against the commercialization and commoditization of art and literature. The short form (the form I choose to write in) is not benign enough to be dealt with as mass-scale commodity (nor is poetry), it is too angry, too much of a brain work, and too complicated to be transformed into light entertainment. Therefore I am sticking with short fiction as a sort of protest against the commoditization of art and literature, in addition to its being the most suitable artistic form for what I want to write, and how I want to write it.
Thoraya: I think, like every aspect of life in the Arab world, you can say that contemporary literature is a victim of authoritarianism. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to describe the Arab literary scene as something like an incestuous village run by the cultural henchmen of Arab regimes – dodgy money and politicized networks of nepotism.
Over the past decade, Arab literature has also been increasingly influenced by the emergence of big money literary prizes funded by oil-rich regimes in the Arabian Gulf looking to purchase cultural prestige. These prizes are dodgy the rest of the literary scene but they are very focused on work with commercial potential.
It isn’t surprising that this literary climate has given rise to what the Egyptian novelist and literary critic Youssef Rakha has described as “a universe of mediocrity that feeds on its own irrelevance.” You end up with literary stars like Egypt’s most successful novelist, Ala’a Al-Aswany, a man who believes that illiterate Egyptians – a quarter of the country’s population – should be stripped to the right to vote. This man believes that a quarter of the people in his country should be treated as subhuman – it is hard to imagine that someone like that has something meaningful to say about the human condition.
Or, in the case of Jordan – where I live – a writers’ association with a leadership that is far more interested in cheerleading for the gruesome Bashar Al-Assad than in doing anything related to literature.
On the other hand, repression can also give rise to great art. So you have a small minority of independent-minded writers who push literary boundaries by experimenting with language and literary form and by breaking social, religious and political taboos. There are flashes of brilliance in this kind of rebellious work that makes the rest of the bullshit seem insignificant.
Hope this sheds some light on your questions.
Naomi: Hello everyone. It’s an honor to know F.T. Kola, who connected us all, and to read Hisham’s story “The City Is In My Chest”. A very powerful piece.
Hisham, what you say about experimentalism seems crucial and encouraging to me, and should be to other writers as well. I have just been reading a series of interviews with American writers in which the question of “the marketplace” came up much too often for my tastes and left, in fact, a sense of great perplexity or sadness about people’s intentions or delusions. One writer felt obsessed with seeing his books “in airports.” That, for him, was proof of some sort of arrival or acceptance. I can imagine you would question this “achievement” and commodification as I do and prefer discussion of the process itself.
I’d love to ask you, Hisham, to discuss the mixture of elements in this story – history, personal impression, metaphorical layerings – and your keen observational gift. How do you keep that alive? How do you encourage it in yourself and channel it into your writing? To me this story resonates on so many levels. It feels very comforting to those of us (like myself) who are frequent travelers, frequently encountering cities we don’t know well, curious about their histories and tonalities.
Nice to meet you all! Will await your replies from San Antonio, Texas.
Hisham: Naomi, I am a short story writer, one with a full-time observational eye, continuously wide open, seeking to detect fluctuations, tensions, distortions. In a café, I choose my chair well to keep the space before me open to observation.
Literature and arts should provoke the imagination of their recipients, making them open up to a world of potentialities and possibilities. I always talk about the similarities between what I write and quantum physics, I will talk about it here again: The quantum world is one burdened with uncertainty. This makes it a rich field of observer-dependent possibilities; even changing the event’s history is possible. That is why and how I write the short form. Quantum physics is the liberation of the material world through the duality of wave and particle. Experimental short fiction is the liberation of writing through the duality of prose and poetry. It is burdened with deeper levels of meaning; that is why it is not so welcome in the publishing world that often seeks “the easy read”.
Naomi: Hisham, To me this story resonates on so many levels and layers and feels very comforting somehow to those of us who are frequent travelers, frequently encountering cities we don’t know well, curious about their histories and tonalities. Are your books in this similar style?
Hisham: Naomi, Some of my stories use the real world as a precursor to imaginary ones. At other times, I implant real events in an imagined context, other times I re-write real events and embed them in my fiction. These parallel worlds tend to influence each other and aid in the creation of yet another new entity which is a mix of what is real and what is not. Did this happen? It does not matter, what matters is the process of generating new meanings, new perceptions. All arts, including the most extreme of surrealists or abstract expressionists use elements or references to the real world. The main issue here is how one uses those elements, in what dimension, and how one reorganizes those elements to come up with a new formula, new layer.
In the story called “Nightmares of the City”, I use my father’s childhood memories (and photographs) to create the delusional effect between what’s real and what’s not. In the story, reality appears in the protagonist’s dream. Just as dreams are the fiction of reality, reality here is the fiction of fiction. How many times have we considered reality a dream (or a nightmare)? Don’t you think people in grave situations (like the majority of people in my region, from Palestine to Libya) consider themselves in a nightmare that they’d want to wake up from? It is a type of a Borgesian labyrinth that I took into another level, the level of confusing reality with the imagined inside the imagined, an area where reality is a nightmare and nightmares are a reinterpretation of reality inside a piece of fiction. A sort of a dead end that is not really “the end of the road”.
Naomi: Yes, the nightmare so many people are living in/through requires all sorts of experimental thinking, otherwise how could they survive. I remember, when I read a book other people seemed to love much more than I did – Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking- I wondered at how other people might require whole LIFETIMES of magical thinking, simply in order to survive the circumstances they find themselves in.
I’d like to hear more about this wonderful raggedy man from the corner who begins dancing and whom you urge, in your mind at least, to keep dancing. I adore the moment where you call him the leading man in the theater piece. I want more of him! There is something so gracious about your acknowledgement of his importance.
Hisham: Well Naomi, you can also see him. I am attaching a picture I took of him. He makes us think that all the writing, the theorization, the arts, everything, all comes to this single point when the wretched of the earth (as Fanon would put it, and he lived and wrote in Algeria where my piece was written) take on the stage and dance. That thin, bare-chested man is the condemnation we receive each day for failing to change the status quo. That is how the theater of life should be in an imagined world: the raggedy man (representing all just and oppressed causes) taking the lead, the center role, and dance all the way to change. We are his mere agitators. Middle-class intellectuals will not lead the change, they will just pave the way; try to start the fire with the sparks of their mind, and push: dance, dance.
Naomi: Thanks for sending me this photo. I’m haunted by the garb of the musicians––lovely and gracious––the dancer’s own bare back, and the somewhat stern gazes of the onlookers. All kinds of observation in this world––people are desperate for it. But they look as if they might cast a judgement over his dance fairly quickly
Thoraya, I’d love to hear more about your translation work – are you working with a few people only or a wide spectrum of writers? Do you also translate poetry? I’m impressed by the intensely poetic nature of this story and how beautifully it reads in English.
Thoraya: I only recently started translating poetry. I avoided it for a long time because I had this idea that you have to be some kind of genius-wizard to pull it off. Being able to preserve the meanings of the original words and also relay the spirit and musicality of a poem seemed more like alchemy to me than anything else. Like you said, Hisham’s prose is very poetic and there were times when I had to deal with translating his stories as if I were translating prose poems. This made me realize that I can translate poetry if I give the translation enough time and (mental) space to develop and evolve into an English version of itself. It turns out that all you have to be is a pedant with good taste in words, which is much more achievable than the whole genius-wizard thing. Mostly, you just have to be willing to put in the hours.
A question from my end to Naomi that is somehow related to translation. I recently read one of your poems (“Right Now”) on the World Literature Today blog. Do you often write about Palestine? I want to ask what it is like for you to write about Palestine in English? I also write in English, which is my first language. When I write about people, places, things in the Arab world, I often get this nagging feeling that my use of a Western language puts distance between the text and the subject matter. Does that sound familiar, or is it just me?
Naomi: Well, I think your translation is quite wizardly and acutely melodious as well. And I am so interested in your comments – both of you – about the contemporary literary “scene” in the Arab world – being primarily a poet has always kept me to the far side of the superstar show, which is just fine. I grieve for all the writers whose voices get muffled or lost in the ruckus and tragedy. Syria, for example. Where are all the beautiful, gentle, humble poets of Syria living and writing right now?
Yes, I have written about Palestine since I was young and always in English since I do not have the same smart region of the brain which absorbs and is able to use multiple languages, as the rest of you have. Though I studied Arabic, Spanish, and German, I speak none of them. My father’s obsession with Palestine and justice for Palestinians, which he also wrote about (his last book, Does the Land Remember Me? A Memoir of Palestine by Aziz Shihab – was printed by Syracuse University Press only 3 months before his death) was channeled down to me. My own times spent in Palestine, observing, witnessing, did the rest. Hopefully some days my poems about the region might become obsolete.
Hisham, I would be curious to ask you Do you have many close writing friends or comrades also committed to the short form at this time? I hope so. What is hardest for you in your days as a writer?
Hisham: Ahlan Naomi and all, and thank you for the excellent interaction and discussion.
I was reading your excellent poem “Right Now”, and making the connection (as I read) with Charles Bukowski’s works of poetry. Although you two differ in terms of techniques and themes, I think both of you have that great embedded narrative line that gives your work the special edge of coming closer and closer to short fiction. Despite the “fact” that the novel and the short story form are considered “prose” and therefore of close kinship, I am of the opinion that the short story form (especially short-shorts) are closer to poetry than anything else: condensed, multi-layered, the important role of symbols and metaphors, the precise and delicate use of language…etc.
Close writing friends are there. They are a few, but they are excellent writers, and span from Iraq to Morocco. The general situation of gravity in the Arab World provides for a minority of excellent renegade writers to keep on existing. Keep up the anger. Keep up the fire of writing. We have repressive regimes and the interventionism of global and regional powers to keep us on the edge. The majority are usually lame, opportunistic, self-censored.. therefore their “creative work” lacks creativity, and like Thoraya explained, the majority are of the “annexed” type: annexed to the regimes, or annexed to their “inferiority complex” regarding “the west”. But, I consider all of this as the objective condition for the rise of a “new” writing: new techniques, new imagery, and new forms. A minority yes, but one that has the conditions to go on further and further.
Therefore, my hardest days (seeing the fall of the intellectual and the rise of the opportunist, experiencing the inability to influence and change, watching the prevalence of injustice, the suffering) are also my most glorious days. The days I get angry, and create.
Naomi: Hisham, Thank you again for this most comprehensive and thoughtful reply. It has never made sense to me to imagine strict dividing lines between genres when they resonate in much more familial ways among themselves, sharing so many attributes and qualities.
I agree with you about the close kinship between poetry and short stories and especially short shorts. Sorry to report that one of the greatest encouragers of the short short nonfiction form, Judith Kitchen, who was also a marvelous critic, has died a few days ago. Had she been in good health, I would have wanted to forward your comments to her, as she would have appreciated them very much. As do I.
Cecca: This has been fantastic, thank you all. After reading Hisham’s last email, I have a final question: What is the social power of art and literature? Or, what is the potential for/ actuality of social change through art?
Thoraya: Just thinking about this question makes me nervous. It is tempting to fall prey to delusions about the power of subversive art, to convince yourself of the importance of cultural work as resistance. But for someone with my privileged background, it is a form of resistance that hasn’t involved much sacrifice. It hasn’t involved paying in sweat and blood and imprisonment. Change only happens when people are willing to pay that higher price.
That said, I think that good art presents new ways of seeing and experiencing the world – ways that exist outside the mental straitjackets imposed on us by imperialism, by capital, by religion, by patriarchy. Frantz Fanon writes that “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” I like to think that art can help us remove the germs of rot in our minds that are left there not only by imperialism, but by all forms of oppression.
Hisham: In my opinion, literature has no influence on the immediate objective world. Sometimes literary writers claim the opposite. I see those writers as being deluded by their own ego, and their own image of themselves.
Literature digs deep, affecting deeper levels of consciousness; it contributes to the alteration of sensitivities and perceptions; and leads to the evolution of what I will call “wisdom”––the slow build up of new ways of looking at life, how to understand it and influence it.
Writers, mostly avant-garde experimentalists, are usually described as being “ahead of their time”. Some sort of out-of-place-out-of-time prophets. I agree and disagree with this description. The literary author is not a prophet in the “savior” sense of the word. The savior can only be the revolt of the oppressed: people creating politics outside the authoritarian confines of the modern state (as Alain Badiou would put it). The literary prophet is a person who sees ahead; that is not some sort of mysticism but an objective description of the capabilities of art and literature when executed by an individual who stands on a ground of knowledge.
Avant-garde literature/art is the prelude of change, sometimes the inspiration of change, sometimes a future agitation, other times a deeper analysis of the stagnant status quo. Sometimes it is the dream that needs to be pursued, the vision to be realized, the slap of awakening, the questioning, the critique. Sometimes it is the alternative history; the unspoken; the bypass of fear. Literature comes close to philosophy on those aspects.
Unlike anatomical dissection, literature is the flow; the integration of all elements of knowledge and understanding. It is knowledge digested and then blended with intuition. It is a web forming the net of wisdom.
Naomi: Ahlan all, I so much wish we were sitting around a table with small cups of mint tea or strong coffee…
Well, I think the social power of art and literature is to humanize us. To keep us human, which the world news certainly doesn’t attempt to do. To nourish our tender spirits, our best hopes for one another, our possibilities for sympathy and empathy, to extend us, to allow us to fulfill anything good we might have been born for. Without it I would personally be a crumpled leaf in the street, or ground into dust by now.
Hisham: Dear Naomi, It is a pleasure to find people like you, still sticking to “the art” rather than its subjugation by “the market”. Commoditization needs labels and brands, confined units for confined mass production and consumption. I am sorry about the passing away of Judith, but I’m sure her spirit lives on in writers like you, and many others who do not look at art as a profession or a generator of income, but consider it the project of their lives––a responsibility towards themselves and the universe around them.
Yes, I want to change the world!
HISHAM BUSTANI has four published collections of short fiction and is acclaimed for his avant-garde themes, style, and language. In 2013, the UK-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of the best six contemporary Jordanian writers. His translated stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Common, CutBank, Banipal, The Malahat Review, World Literature Today, among other publications. His book The Perception of Meaning has just been awarded The 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award.
THORAYA EL-RAYYES is a writer and literary translator living in Amman, Jordan. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, The Outpost, The Literary Review, Sukoon and many others. She received the 2014 Arkansas Arabic Translation Prize for her translation of Hisham Bustani’s flash fiction / prose poetry collection The Perception of Meaning.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE has written or edited 35 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s stories. Her most recent, a chapter book for children, is called The Turtle of Oman.