It’s a good time to be an Arab writer. December 18 marks the seventh annual UNESCO World Arabic Language Day, just one of many honors accorded by western elites on their Arab peers. Another came earlier this year when the International Booker—not to be confused with the “Arabic Booker,” a.k.a. the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; as James English observes in The Economy of Prestige, the nature of cultural prizes is to endlessly beget more prizes—had its first Arabic winner in Celestial Bodies, by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. All of this commotion means that publishers are now seeing Arabic titles spike in supply and demand. With conspicuous gestures by enterprising Gulf monarchs, there is now more financial and psychical support than ever for translating Arabic literature into English.
Yet such happy developments tend to bless the province of modern works alone. However well-intentioned their goals, the various prizes, publishers, and pecuniary goods—in short, the institutional boons to translation—are losing sight of Arabic’s great riches: the centuries-old tradition of classical literature, as well as the battle-weary corps of translators bringing it into English, often from beyond the fortified ramparts of university tenure.
There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is the Emirati-funded Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), a New York University Press venture that has released more than three dozen works of classical Arabic. For each, scholars use original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and English translation, in partnership with a board of accomplished Arabists. The books are then published as bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. Among the tenured, this series bodes a new era of friendly assistance that some have waited entire careers to see. However, the LAL editorial policy of turning away young scholars—with the worthy goal of keeping them from work that doesn’t count for tenure—means that most titles come only from comfortably established professors or translators. This stiff hierarchy finds itself mirrored outside the university, too: journalists and others not affiliated with LAL but who hope to promote classical Arabic literature have had lost potential readers to LAL’s savvy, well-funded publicity team.
But despite the odds, a number of independent translators, most of them young and untenured, have in the last few years taken to small presses with radiant, vigorous English translations. The majority are works of classical Arabic poetry, although in the case of NYU’s David Larsen, the text in question was an 11th-century etymological dictionary called Names of the Lion, translated by Larsen and published as a “chapbook” with Wave Books in 2009 and reprinted in 2017. Larsen has another Wave Books title, Lightning Scenes, of actual Arabic poetry in English.
After a characteristically insightful preface, Larsen surrounds and overwhelms his readers with lexicographical minutiae—a list of more than 400 classical Arabic synonyms for “lion” compiled by Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, plus translator’s footnotes that betray a deep erudition:
al-Rayyas “The Strutter”al-Jukhdub “The Great Big [Leaper in the Grass?],” also said of the locustal-`Ajannas “The Colossus,” also said of a camelal-Sabanda “The Daredevil,” also said of the leopard, as is al-Sabantaal-Ghadb “The Scarlet,” said of intense saturation with rednessal-Bay’as “The Bane,” said of anything that causes harm. God, be He exalted, speaks [in Surat al-`Araf 7:165] of “a doom that is ba’is.”al-Muhis “Who Causes Folks to Step Along”al-Arqab “Whose Neck is Massive”
Doing more justice to a classical Arabic tradition obsessed with its own language than many a wispy verse collection could, Larsen’s oddball gamble paid off, netting him the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. With 2020 promising his second classical poetry night for the American Oriental Society, he is clearing the cobwebs from a corner of ancient Arabic literature that English readers never get to see.
But Larsen is a working poet, just like many who grind away at classical Arabic. It’s no shock that they should choose to translate verse rather than something else. Casting an enormous shadow over this new generation of Arabic literary translators, in terms of style and voice, if not in direct tutelage, are the labors of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. For decades, he has rendered the Qur’an, pre-Islamic desert odes, and Islamic Sufi lyric poetry in a way that avoids the archaizing quality of the original, striving instead for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse,” as he explains in Desert Tracings. Here, for instance, is his opening to Qur’an 82, “The Tearing”:
When the sky is tornWhen the stars are scatteredWhen the seas are poured forthWhen the tombs are burst openThen a soul will know what it has given and what it has held back
Spare, ghostly, thrumming with the distance of legend told in light whispers—this is not a classicist’s crib, but instead the ethereal fare one might expect in the pages of River Styx or Tin House. Being aware of this working poet’s sensibility goes a long way toward explaining the shape of translations now being made by young Arabists, and perhaps why some of them have chosen to remain outside academia, where literalizing trots are the preferred tool.
One translator in this camp is Kareem James Abu Zeid. An Egyptian-American with a UC Berkeley Ph.D. and training under the poet CK Williams, Abu Zeid has worked exclusively with modern Arabic up to now, including Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian poet Adunis (with Ivan Eubanks, New Directions, 2019). But in 2018, he secured a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate the mu`allaqat or “hung poems.” These are a group of seven—or 10, depending on the compiler—pre-Islamic desert odes as formative to Arabic as Beowulf was to English.
Channeling a sixth-century Arabian desert zeitgeist in which the grainy details of tribal warfare and harsh landscapes mingle with more expansive themes such as love, betrayal, and hubris, the odes were traditionally grist to the mill of European orientalists like Charles Lyall and Sir William Jones. But in the last century, they got their first working poet’s touch from Sells in Desert Tracings, mentioned above. Abu Zeid moves in a similar direction, rendering them “more poetic and accessible,” as in this passage from the hung poem of Imru’ al-Qays describing the poet’s own horse:
How quickly he moves,charging forward and drawing backas in a single motion, poisedto rush down from on highlike a torrent of stones.His hue: the dark of wine.His back: so slickthe saddle-felt slips from itlike raindrops off rock.
Sidestepping the familiar Latinisms and plodding cadences, Abu Zeid delivers tight, Creeley-esque lines that quicken long-dead poets back to life. Specialists will groan about yet another translation of what they see as well-worn texts, but this view forgets how novel they are to non-experts. What’s more, the specialists themselves, malnourished by a lack of apparent relevance to society, will reap the fruit of greater public awareness about classical Arabic titles beyond the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Speaking of that last work, another person to watch is Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian translator and essayist for venues like Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. One of the first women to translate the Nights, in 2018 she put out a dynamic English rendition of Aladdin with Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Just as artful but less known are her experiments with the mystical poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. According to Tentacular Magazine, Seale has teamed up with Robin Moger, a Banipal Prize-winning translator of modern Arabic literature, to workshop poems from The Interpreter of Desires, a collection that uses erotic motifs to express mystical-philosophical doctrine. At the urging of his pupils, Ibn Arabi wrote a preface to clarify the connection.
Regarding their method, Seale and Moger explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” Readers can watch a single poem evolve as Seale and Moger post its several English reincarnations online, such as these lines in Moger’s translation:
if we meet we will partbut in one moment pressing and wrapping we is emphatic
really there is space between useyes do not see itinstead the unity of usin my sparse stuff and your light
by my thin cries loosed I am spied
Perhaps not surprisingly, given such redolent material, Ibn Arabi is yet another figure touched by the poetic vision of Michael Sells. In 2018, he reprised his earlier work Stations of Desire (Ibis, 2000) with a new set of translations from The Interpreter of Desires, called Bewildered (The Post-Apollo Press), with further plans to publish a complete translation plus Arabic edition.
Some up-and-comers have cast their translator’s nets to the other side of the boat, opting for material less common in English. One is Melanie Magidow, Ph.D. alumna of University of Texas at Austin and a freelance Arabic consultant. In 2017, she received an NEA grant to translate the epic Sirat Dhat al-Himma, the longest of its kind and the only one named for a female general, Dhat al-Himma—“She of High Resolve,” a warrior’s honorific; her real name is Fatima—who brawls her way across the Arab-Byzantine borderlands. Readers can find an excerpt published through the University of Iowa. At times the English comes off a bit sclerotic, as when Magidow’s classicizing ear picks up the garble of battle cries:
Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!” “No!” Fatima hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!”
But she is more confident in passages of description or narrative:
Fatima kept to herself, riding the horses and learning the arts of war on her own–attack and retreat, lining up for battle, pursuit, defense, and charging. She made weapons from tree branches, leaves, and reeds. Whenever a camel stallion opposed her, she would shout at him and, clinging to the stallion’s mate, she would direct him until he surrendered … By the age of seven, she could fast a full day, repeating to herself the name of Allah. The Bani Tayy began to call her “Shariha the Mystic.”
Another translator whose work enlarges classical Arabic literature’s place in English is Alex Rowell. A Beirut-based journalist and managing editor of Al-Jumhuriya English, Rowell burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers). Despite being a household name in the Arab world, the 9th-century poet Abu Nuwas is all but unknown in English. An infamous philanderer, sexual adventurer, mocker of religion, and general free spirit, he’s considered above all to be classical Arabic’s bacchic bard. His wine poems, or khamriyyat, speak of a dissolute Baghdad nightlife where all pleasures can be found:
Why would I go on Hajj as long as I’m plunged in a wine house, or a pimp’s pad?And even if you could save me from those How could I be saved from Tiyzanabad?
Unlike most renderings of classical Arabic poetry, Rowell’s English pulls off rhyming couplets (aB-cB-dB-eB, etc.) without sounding trite or stilted, although readers will sense his taste for a bookish register when compared to the other translations seen here. Along with a sharp introduction and helpful notes, Vintage Humour finds a rare balance between poetry and philology that so completely defines the original.
It’s a balance needed right now, at a time when contemporary Arab writers are taking their turn on the world stage, in order to keep the classical tradition from being lost to view. As independent translators strive after the best English voice for lines written a thousand years ago in Arabic, they are also determined to show why those lines matter in the first place.
Image: T Foz
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
A religious tyrant decides that Salman Rushdie should die for writing a “blasphemous” book. For ten years he is forced to flee from one safe-house to another with no one for company but his bodyguards and an increasingly estranged wife. How does he pass the time?
How about video games?
In his newly released memoir Joseph Anton, which is narrated in the third person, Rushdie briefly describes how he went through a phase when he found himself immersed in Super Mario Bros, the popular Nintendo game that his son Zafar taught him to play.
Those were dark days for the 41-year-old writer. Every morning brought fresh reports of either The Satanic Verses being burnt or him being burnt in effigy. Then came the chilling news that the police had foiled a group of assassins dispatched from overseas to execute the fatwa. If it sounded straight out of a bigoted video game, well, it wasn’t – or not yet, at least. But more on that later.
Given Rushdie’s lonely and claustrophobic circumstances in what his late friend Christopher Hitchens called “the time of the toad,” it was scarcely surprising that the fantasy-loving novelist whose favorite childhood stories were The Wizard of Oz and The Arabian Nights should occasionally transform himself into Mario the mustachioed plumber and run away to Mushroom Kingdom. The magic console was the next best thing to a magic carpet or magic lamp, and it quickly became the “Genie-come-lately” in his fantasy arsenal. It helped that in this digital world of magical mushrooms and fire flowers, he was hunter rather than hunted. A vital role reversal, even if his wife didn’t think so.
Marianne came around and scolded him for playing video games. Thanks to Zafar, he had grown fond of Mario the plumber and his brother Luigi and sometimes Super Mario World felt like a happy alternative to the one he lived in the rest of the time. “Read a good book,” his wife told him scornfully. “Give it up.” He lost his temper. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” he exploded, and she made a grand exit.
And, gleefully, a few days later:
Alone at Hermitage Lane he reached the end of his Super Mario game, defeating the big bad Bowser himself and rescuing the insufferably pink Princess Toadstool. He was glad Marianne was not there to witness his triumph.
Rushdie’s triumph must have dissipated quite rapidly, however, when reality intruded with cruel irony in the form of a flesh-and-blood West Indian plumber who showed up at the shoddy safe-house to fix the central heating, forcing him to scurry out of sight and “hide in the bathroom for several hours, drenched in the now habitual sweat of shame.”
But no experience is wasted on a writer who is a compulsive memory-miner, and Rushdie put his video-game expertise to good use in the two children’s novels he wrote for his sons, though the second, Luka and the Fire of Life, is more directly indebted to Mario and Luigi than the first. The first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was dedicated to Zafar and written during the fatwa years, investing it with an immediacy that gave it a haunting power. Easily the most enchanting of Rushdie’s many novels, this allegorical tale about the war between Storytelling and Silence was an acutely topical portrayal of the synchronous real-world battle between free speech and fanaticism. In the novel, one of young Haroun’s tasks is to rescue the talkative and tuneless Princess Batcheat (baatcheat is the Urdu word for conversation) from Khattam-Shud, the emperor of Silence. Was the chatterbox Princess a reincarnation of the “insufferably pink Princess Toadstool?” And did Mario inspire the character of the mustachioed water genie Iff, who uses his plumber’s wrench to turn on and turn off the faucet through which the Stream of Stories flows via “a P2C2E” (Process too Complicated to Explain)?
It certainly seems like it. But where the impact of Super Mario bursts forth in full bloom is in Luka and the Fire of Life, which Rushdie wrote for younger son, Milan. (Incidentally, Rushdie, with an over 4,00,000 Twitter following, is quite the Geek Dad. He plays Angry Birds on his iPhone and when asked by the Wall Street Journal how he, living in New York, had managed to tell his boys in London bedtime stories, he replied, “There’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.”) Luka is an Arabian Nights-meets-Nintendo novel in which “Super-Luka” is cast as a modern-day Prometheus who sets out to execute “the most deliciously Disrespectful Deed in All of Time.” Namely, to steal the fire of life and carry it back home in order to wake his beloved storyteller father Rashid Khalifa from his fatal coma-like sleep.
The young boy’s quest is constructed almost exactly like a Super Mario video game. He is given 999 lives, and has to pass through several levels of increasing difficulty to reach the magic fire. Each level is given a suitably video game-sounding title – the Respectorate of Rats, the Mists of Time, the Great Stagnation, the Inescapable Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths and the Great Rings of Fire. Each time an enemy pots him with a loud BLLLAAARRRTT!, Luka loses one or more of his lives and bursts into “millions of shiny fragments” that join up again with “loud sucking noises.” Each time he clears a level, he saves his progress by punching a gold ball, which makes a loud and satisfying Ding. Eventually, after going through many “bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels” and P2C2Es and magical M2C2D (Machines too Complicated to Describe), the plucky fire-thief and his friends ding their way to victory.
Naturally, a punster like Rushdie couldn’t pass up the temptation to game with the word “console.” Early in the novel, Luka’s mother, Soraya, who disapproves strongly of her son’s love of video games, angrily asks her husband if all these “hedgehogs and plumbers” will help improve their son’s poor handwriting. Rashid, a genial stand-in for Rushdie, is actually quite sympathetic about Luka’s gaming passion. Which is bad enough as far as his wife as is concerned, but then he makes the additional mistake of correcting her mid-rant to say that the right term for the “pisps” and “wees” her son is addicted to – “Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what” – is console. At which point, she stages a grand exit from the room (like Marianne?) declaring over her shoulder: “I am in-console-able.”
On a more serious note, video games seem to hold a special appeal for Rushdie for reasons that go the very heart of his writing. First, as glorious purveyors of an “infinite number of parallel realities,” they fit perfectly into his exuberant mosaic of magical realism in which everything from the mythological and historical to tabloid headlines jostle for space. Which other writer can give you Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Akbar, and Angelina Jolie in one line? And what other game allows the player to become a “plumber” or a “zooming hedgehog” or even an “Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles?”
The other reason is the discursive narrative architecture of a video game, a non-linearity which he finds fascinating. Rushdie’s elliptical, story-within-story, detour-friendly, digression-heavy style is anything but linear. It can be maddening when he overdoes it, and he often does, but also richly rewarding if one just goes along for the ride. His books are not clean, blue Olympic swimming pools where each story has the good manners to stick to its own lane. Rather, they are an unruly and inquisitive and shape-shifting Ocean of Stories, into which hundreds of rivulets from different centuries and cultures – or streams of our collective sub-conscious, if you like – pour to pollute and mingle and fertilize one another.
Over the last few decades, with the exponential growth in the popularity of video games, writers have often been asked about the impact of these games on the future of the novel. Few have responded with as much insight as Rushdie did two years ago in this excellent Big Think interview. It’s worth listening to it in full. While he agreed that the concerns are legitimate and that too much gaming could have a dumbing-down effect and perhaps even erode man’s ancient attachment to the story, he made a powerful case for the new form. It interested him, he said, because of “the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided. He doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find mini stories to stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller…To tell the story sideways.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the trickiest levels that Luka has to pass through is called The Trillion and One Forking Paths. This was Rushdie doffing his cap to Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” widely credited with having predicted hypertext on the Internet. “I’ve always thought of the Borges story of the garden of the forking paths as a kind of model,” Rushdie said in the same interview.
It’s a story whose author has gone mad because what he’s tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So boy meets girl, they fall in love or they don’t fall in love. That’s the first fork. And he wants to tell both those stories and every variation of every moment down both those lines. And of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it becomes impossible to write the book. It seems to me, the internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad possibilities offered at the same level of authority, if you like. I think that’s one of the ways storytelling could move. These games, these more free-form games, where the player can make choices of what the game is going to become, is a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
To loop back to the fatwa years where it all began, it’s quite strange that video games should continue to pop up in the relationship between Rushdie and Iran. Though the fatwa was lifted more than ten years ago, the present government evidently has no qualms about stoking the old death diktat. Earlier this year, the government-sponsored Islamic Students Association in Iran, as if determined to prove that history repeats itself as farce, announced that it had completed initial production on a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict. Two years ago, Rushdie told Big Think that in his opinion the great conflict in the world today is not so much the conflict between the West and the Islamic world but the conflict within Islam, between modernity and tradition, between the youth and the greybeard mullahs. This held true for Iran too, he said, and joked: “I often think the best way to liberate Iran is to drop Nintendo consoles from the air.” On second thought, perhaps not.
Publicity image via nintendo
Habibi, Craig Thompson’s first graphic novel in eight years, is a sorrowful epic pipe dream of Muslim culture filtered through a Westernized lens. It tells the story of Dodola and Zam, two child slaves living in a vicious universe in which rape and murder are assumed facts of life. The details can be jarring. The soldiers in his fictional Arabian Nights-inspired kingdom of Wanatolia have daggers but no guns, while street vendors sell slaves in chains next to DVD stands. Still, one need change only one or two small facts of our history and his book could serve as a cousin to the non-fiction comics journalism of Joe Sacco.
Thompson spent a day on most pages of his book. Certain pages, the ones that include intricate Middle Eastern designs, took three days. The cartoonish surrealism of Thompson’s first book Good-bye, Chunky Rice and the simplified, stripped-down drawings in his account of first love in Blankets offered some solace against depictions of abuse and sexual frustration. But the exotic, overbearing detail of Habibi can disturb. The beauty of the book both attracts and alienates.
I met Thompson at the home of mutual friends, a Spanish couple, a writer and painter, in Iowa City on the morning of September 25. The hotels in town were overbooked thanks to a Saturday football game, so he had stayed there the night before. He met me at the door, wearing yesterday’s shirt, looking well-rested. We sat in a huge white room. Sunlight came in from long vertical windows hitting several paintings, including a few of recognizable spots in Iowa City. A cat came by occasionally to rub up against our legs. What follows is a pared-down version of our interview.
The Millions: Was there any moment as you were beginning this book when you sought permission to write it? You are a white person from a very Christian family in Wisconsin. Was there any voice in the back of your head saying, “You don’t get to write about black people or Arab people in the Muslim world”?
Craig Thompson: I didn’t worry about that specifically, partly because the two characters — Dodola and Zam, an Arab girl and a black boy — delivered themselves fully realized from my subconscious. So they already were characters that existed outside of me and they dictated a lot of the things they did. I trusted the Turkish writer Elif Shafak — she wrote The Bastard of Istanbul — who describes fiction as a way to live other lives and in other worlds. You don’t need to have those experiences directly. It’s almost a shamanistic journey where by tapping your own imagination you access these other roles. And I trusted that.
With all my work, I struggle with giving myself permission to do it. And that comes from coming from a very religious household and a very anti-art household.
I come from very lower-working-class roots, so it’s not like my parents wanted me to have a more high-powered career, like being a doctor. They actually wanted me to have a more modest career, like being an electrician, something that’s very practical. [They wanted me to do] something that serves society rather than [something that] serves oneself, which is their perception of art. Every day I struggle with allowing myself to be an artist. And I have to try to trust the instinct that hopefully art also helps other people and not just oneself.
TM: Do you graft a Christian ethos onto your art then?
CT: Well, for me the Christian ethos is not to judge other people. No human can judge another. I think I am true to that in my art. When you’re a writer, you’re not judging your characters. You can live a lot of different roles on paper without judgment.
TM: A lot of Orientalist art from the 19th century is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s all in service to an ideology that has caused an incredible amount of destruction in the world. How do you square that problem, especially in the current era when there are an enormous amount of issues with the way people regard Islam, the Muslim world and the Arab world?
CT: Well, that exactly is the intent [of the book], to bring up the correlations between the turn-of-the-19th-century Orientalism with the new brand of Orientalism that exists throughout the world, this new Islamophobia and this labeling of people as the other. I was also thinking not of Orientalism, [but of] the Arabian Nights as a genre, like cowboys-and-Indians. So cowboys-and-Indians is a sensationalized version of the history of the American West and doesn’t really reflect reality. So I wanted to work with the Arabian Nights genre in the same way and steal from all these tropes and not shy away from their inappropriateness.
There’s a very offensive Islamophobia that happens in the media, especially the conservative media. But then there’s also this overly-PC, liberal reaction to tiptoe around a lot of subjects which I think is its own form of insult, because the Muslims I know are very open-minded people and would rather engage in a dialogue.
I don’t know if I’m sidestepping the question, but the book all along was a mash-up of the sacred medium of holy books, like the Koran and the Bible, and the vulgar pulp medium of comic books. For me Orientalism is like a comic book, like superhero comics, with all the sexism built into it. Orientalism is eroticized and sensationalized and you could say the same for superheroes.
TM: You were drawing these very intricate decorations all by hand, and if you look closely you can see that. This part of the decoration [pointing to one part of a random page] is different from that one, even though they follow the same pattern. I imagine the labor that went into that was extremely intensive. By doing these patterns you were aping what an artisan from this other part of the world does. Was that your own personal way of getting into the mindset of the culture?
CT: You’re nailing it exactly. I hate using the terms East and West because they are purely imaginative boundaries. But in the Western world, at least, art is placed on this pedestal. There’s so much ego tied up in the artistic process. In contemporary art, in fine arts, it’s more common for the artist to be more of an overseer, where they come up with the concept, but then they dictate all the actual labor to a bunch of unnamed assistants. And that’s always really offensive to me. We cartoonists in general have a more modest approach to our work where it’s just got to be us alone in our studio for hours and hours. You can’t fake comics really, or actually you probably could, but not in the old-fashioned alternative comics world. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, there’s all these artisans and craftsmen who work meticulously and have a lot more skill, but do it without the monetary reward and the egotistical reward. So I did want to pay tribute to those people. But even that sounds a little pretentious, because I was still just working with the very malleable form of ink on paper. I’m not carving wood or laying tile-work or doing something much more complex.
In a very small way I wanted to pay tribute to that and just be responsible for every single drop of ink on the paper. Throughout the book, people were pressuring me to get an intern to help me out. They could see that was wearing myself down a bit. But it was just really important in the end to make sure that every single line was my own. It was an act of defiance against the digital age where everyone is rubberstamping everything.
TM: You open each of your books with a major trauma that shadows the rest of the narratives.
CT: Well, it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s interesting what you say about how it shadows everything after. I think that’s similar to our own lives and the traumas we carry. To some degree, you’re always carrying that with you. Certainly you’re always carrying your inner child with you and the damages that happen to that child. And other people aren’t aware of it. Only you are. I like that you say that. That resonates with me.
TM: One of the issues I have with seeing major traumas in the opening pages of your books is that it’s impossible for me to, say, forgive your parents when I read Blankets for what they do early on, or to believe in any real good in the world of Habibi because of what I see in the opening pages.
CT: Well then how do you live in the reality of our world?
TM: I’m not very forgiving.
CT: (laughs) I was waiting at a bus stop once and I was assaulted by six drunken rednecks. Waiting at the bus stop with me was this retarded man and they didn’t hurt either of us badly, but they pushed him to the ground and kicked him a couple of times and spit on him. And of course after they left, this retarded man was bawling. And he came to sit with me on the bus. And he was just torn to pieces. “Why do people do this?” he said. I said, “Something like this could happen to anyone.” He’s like, “I don’t want to live in Portland anymore if something like this could happen.” And I was like, “This could happen anywhere. It’s just random that it happened in that location.” He was like, “Why would I want to live in this world anymore?” He was just saying it in this very pleading way. It was this really interesting dialogue I had with this mentally disabled man. And I was just trying to encourage him. “Yes, this could happen anywhere. Horrible things happen everywhere.” He was telling me what he was doing. He was going to see a friend. I said, “You’re going to see a friend. There’s good people in the world. That’s what you have to focus on.” At the end of our bus ride he was as happy as could be. He was really happy to make a connection on the bus. He was standing at the door of the bus, like “Bye friend!” He was really happy.
I think that’s a theme in my work. The world is a horrible place and humans do horrible things to each other and you have to work for positive energy and to carve out a place of safety and shelter within each other.
I open Blankets with a lot of negativity because I wanted to communicate to the reader why Christianity was so important to me as a child. It really was this shelter. I wasn’t really a happy child. I was an unhappy child and not comfortable in my skin and not comfortable in my environment so, like a lot of people, all my comfort and solace was in religion. Even at that tiny age.
TM: There is something about the world of Habibi that is unrelentingly vicious. In the world of Blankets you offer some moments of escapism, but I never felt there was a way to escape Habibi. I was thinking of Cormac McCarthy as I was reading Habibi. [I open a random page of Blankets]. I just pulled this up, but the mere fact that you can just walk in the snow and enjoy nature and have some kind of breathing space resonates in Blankets. I don’t know if you saw that difference as well.
CT: I love Cormac McCarthy. I think the essential philosophy to his work is the viciousness of human existence and that may be true of Michael Haneke too. I would acknowledge both of them as inspirations. But I’m more of a positive nihilist. I have a nihilistic view of humanity and a belief that humans will wipe each other out of existence. But that makes it even more important to labor in a positive way now. That energy continues on. I think life continues on whether or not the human species will. With Habibi, I was processing some major heartbreaks and I was processing health problems. I was processing a lot of frustrations with the art world or at least the comics industry.
TM: What were the health problems?
CT: Some of that is in Carnet De Voyage [Thompson’s account of his trip to Morocco and his European book tour for Blankets]. A very crippling hand pain, at the time. I had to take months off at a time where I couldn’t draw. So there was that sense of despair around: “Do I have to figure out a different career?” “Will I be able to draw for many more years of my life?” So there was a lot of anxiety caught up in what I was passionate about doing: drawing.
TM: I may be sounding like your parents now. But: You have hand pain. You suffered heartbreak. The industry that you’re in, like everything in publishing, is falling apart.
CT: “Unprofessional” might be a good word.
TM: But how does that lead to writing about child sex slaves?
CT: “Child slaves.” I think for a child those two terms feel synonymous. And there’s more slavery in the world now than ever before in human history. And capitalism and global trade are probably the main fuel for that. Wealth in the Western world only feeds off poverty and exploitation of people in other countries. So there’s processing that American guilt of being a participant in this imperialistic machine.
I’ve always wanted to do a book about sexual trauma. In Blankets, I talk briefly about being molested as a child, but that’s almost insignificant [compared] to some people who were very close to me as a young kid who were raped. Before I knew any positive form of sexuality, I knew rape. Growing up — and I grew up in a small town -– I assumed that every woman was raped. And that was my social circle. And ironically, once I moved away and lived in bigger cities, that proportion got watered down so it wasn’t like everyone I knew was raped. But everyone has either been raped or abused or had some spiritual abuse imposed on them through religious dogma or just had a natural clumsy awakening into sexuality.
TM: I know you were going for something that bordered on magic realism. But looking at the landscape of this book, I don’t think you have to change too much to make it something that could take place in our world as we know it. Here we have a boat in the middle of the desert. How did you walk that line where if you changed one millimeter of a percentage of the laws of physics you could imagine those things existing?
CT: That’s a good question. I think I saw this after I had written this into the book. There’s these photos of the Aral Sea after a big drought and there’s all these fishing boats stranded in desert, basically. That’s a very realistic little detail. The things that I chose to exclude were guns and television sets. I didn’t want people in slums all hanging out around television sets the way they would in reality. So in a way I took away things that to me were boring to draw or more mundane or things I just wasn’t interested in.
TM: Star Wars.
CT: Star Wars? You must have read this in another interview then.
TM: No, because I was thinking of it as I was reading it. The boat looked like the Jabba the Hut skiff that was in the middle of the desert. And then there’s the sand guys with the masks…
CT: Yes, the Tusken Raiders.
TM: Did you do that and think, “Oh man, I just cribbed from George Lucas, who cribbed from other people”? Or did you pay tribute to him consciously?
CT: I can’t recall. I do know that I was thinking of the book in a Star Wars-y way. And I’ve described it this way in interviews that it doesn’t take place in any specific geography or time like Star Wars, which supposedly took place long long ago in a galaxy far far away.
That was always disrupting to me as a child that this futuristic-looking world actually happened “long long ago.” And also that he was filming all these things in North Africa and his other-planet landscape was all drawing from the influence of North Africa. In Carnet I talk about going to Morocco and seeing everybody in Jawa costumes. And I was really using a lot of those hooded djellabas in Habibi so I was thinking this is basically Star Wars. I’m not meticulously researching any place. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get caught up in the real details, the historical, heavily researched details, because there was this emotional core, this very heavy relationship that I wanted to focus on. And so the rest of it was collage. It was taking elements from different places and cultures, which is also Star Wars, I suppose.
TM: Given the history of racism in comics, when you sat down and drew these characters, were you thinking: “No that doesn’t look quite right, no I can’t do that”?
CT: I don’t think I worried about it much. I feel like Zam is drawn very realistically for cartoon-y style. Whereas other characters, like Hyacinth in the harem, is a weird caricature of certain guy. And I just embraced that. I don’t think of it in an ethnic way. I just think of it as a cartoonish caricature to make him that strange lunkish build. And there’re a lot of characters where a cartoonishness is built into their design. I feel Dodola and Zam are definitely the most beautiful characters in the book. I want the reader to be attracted to them.
In the rape scene, originally, I had a much more grotesque character. And I didn’t like how it felt sensationalized. So that character ended up looking more and more attractive. At a certain point, he was almost a pretty boy. And that’s when I added the element of these aviator glasses. Because I felt like it put up some distance from him and obviously he is a monstrous character. But if you were to remove those glasses he would almost look like a classic Aryan pretty boy.
TM: There isn’t a panel in your book that doesn’t seek out some form of aesthetic pleasure. Why do you depict something like this [pointing to the rape scene in book] in a way to make it beautiful? People hate Schindler’s List, among other reasons, because the black-and-white is so gorgeous.
CT: I tend towards the sentimental. So there are times where I try deliberately to pull back and have an unbiased camera angle. I don’t know if I’m necessarily trying not to make it beautiful. As I said in depicting the rapist, in earlier drafts he was more monstrous. Even the way things were framed was a little more horrific. Finally, I found that it was more powerful to use that Hitchcock-ian method of just “less is more.” The camera is still in there. But there’s just more formalistic structure to it. Coldness isn’t the word. But I’m trying to create some emotional distance in depicting these things. I want the reader to have their own emotional reaction and not impose an emotional response on them through the drawing style.
TM: You haven’t worked with color in any of your four books. Is there anything about color that turns you off?
CT: No, I wouldn’t say it turns me off. For me, cartooning is a cursive shorthand for a bigger drawing or a painting. And I still adhere to those principles. I want the drawings to have a hand-written quality. For me, color is just an added layer of process that in some ways actually creates some distance from the reader. And I love it when artists work in watercolor, in a really organic medium like that. There’s a little bit of laziness in me where my books would take even longer to get out if I was also coloring them. And I wouldn’t want to hand off the responsibility to someone else because of that obsessive-ness of wanting every line to be my own. Also I recognize some of the actual printing mechanics and expenses of adding color as an element. Chris Ware, of course, is a master of color in comics. He talks about comics as typography. I think of comics as calligraphy. And for me the purest form of that is just the ink on the paper. It’s just the artist’s brush or nib.
One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though – high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation “writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation”? – the magazine’s list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping.
To be sure, it’s hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We’ve been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, “to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.” And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we’ve decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch.
The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker’s editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There’s also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy Senna, Paul LaFarge…). It’s nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40” list.
Calvin Baker’s three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past.
Jesse Ball’s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that’s somehow both minimalist and maximalist – Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008.
Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it’s worth, Bachelder’s remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace.
Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we’re told, working on another.
Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award.
Judy Budnitz is one of America’s great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back.
Joshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing.
Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S….or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people’s year-end lists.
Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography.
Sheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker’s. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She’s since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts.
Samantha Hunt’s most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney’s.
Porochista Khakpour’s debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same.
Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1.
Victor LaValle’s third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher’s Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall.
Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005.
Joe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan.
Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture.
Salvador Plascencia’s memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney’s Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he’s working on now, but we look forward to it.
Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL’s Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here.
Anya Ulinich’s debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She’s got a great story called “Mr. Spinach” floating around out there somewhere…hopefully part of a collection?