A quarantine interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey about Arabic fiction


Marcia Lynx Qualey is the founding editor of the “ArabLit” website (arablit.org), which won a 2017 London Book Fair “Literary Translation Initiative” prize. She also publishes the experimental ArabLit Quarterly magazine and is co-host of the Bulaq podcast. Her co-translation of the middle-grade novel Ghady and Rawan was published this summer by University of Texas Press (August 2019), and her translation of Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands is forthcoming (2020) from Interlink. She currently lives in Rabat, Morocco.
Now also under quarantine.


Given the COVID-19 outbreak across the world and its almost sci-fi overtones, how do you think all its implications will infiltrate the writing of the next generation of Arab novelists?

It’s unavoidable that major world events will influence literary writing; after 1967, the Arab literary world was so shaken that many authors stopped writing for a time; after 2011, thousands of novels, short stories, memoirs, and poems were shaped by revolution, uprising, protest, and counter-protest. Surely COVID-19 will affect literary expression. Already poetry, life-writing, and comix are appearing. There are comix like Mazen Kerbaj’s The Corona Diaries and Lina Ghaibeh’s Karantina Lina; there’s Fady Joudah’s poem Corona Radiata; and the feature “Ayyam al-karantina edited by Carol Sansour.

Unlike the naksa [setback] of 1967 or the uprisings of 2011, COVID-19 has struck almost the whole world, so I expect the Arabic writing that comes out of it will be in dialogue with writing from other languages.

I have seen editors already groaning online, saying, “Please no corona novels.” But what kind of world would it be, if human literature failed to grapple with lived experience? If current Syrian novels made no mention of war?

At the past couple Cairo International Book Fairs, there seemed to be a surge in sci-fi, crime, and gore. Is this accurate and if so, is this trend a reflection of the Arab world or the influence of Western writers?

I haven’t seen much of a surge in science fiction, but horror and crime fiction, yes, absolutely. I believe horror and crime novels are very much by local writers for local readers, long may they both live! Horror and crime were evident in the Thousand and One Nights and, long before them, in the writings of al-Tanukhi, in the tenth century.

I think the general belief is that reading horror helps us feel we can better manage a terrifying world; crime, too, probably helps us feel more in control. Perhaps in unsettling times there is an uptick in horror and crime stories? A scholar would know better.

What do you think a non-Arab-world reader expects to find in a novel coming from the Arab world? Cliché stories about worn-torn cities, plots about day-to-day corruption and poverty, impossible love stories, family feuds and traditional religious discourse? 

Yes, certainly, Orientalist expectations are still a major force, and many publishers (and TV producers) profit off reinforcing them. As an editor, I try to ignore what the reader expects and focus on giving them something miraculous. As a critic, naturally, I am put in the position of irritably criticizing these expectations. I think the central expectation is that the Western reader can somehow participate in the enterprise of “saving Muslim women” through the act of reading Arabic literature. Or maybe that’s just the one that makes me most irritable.

Why are there not more epic love stories?

As opposed to just regular romance novels? There are a goodly number of romances, I think, although they’re generally considered—as elsewhere in the world—a lesser genre, because dominated by women. As for love epics, such as Bayad and Riyad or Majnun Layla, perhaps they’re for times when writers are feeling more optimistic?

With so many international novels being translated nowadays, do you think that readers are more inclined to read translated fiction?

I think the profile of translated fiction in English has risen a bit. People have started to talk more about translating women, and translating fiction from Chinese and Bangla and Urdu and Yoruba and Thai, where before it was mostly about Great Men’s Great European Novels, the Russians, and a few Latin Americans. But we Anglophones still have a lot to do, in terms of lifting our eyes to glimpse other literary traditions.

How has translated Arabic fiction evolved since Hoopoe launched its new imprint in 2016?

Translated Arabic fiction saw a bit of a sea change last year, when Jokha al-Harthi won the Man Booker International. Other major prizes (Khaled Khalifa being shortlisted for the National Book Award, for instance) have helped bring attention to Arabic literature in a way that doesn’t focus on “learning about those places” but rather on, “What masterful literary works are being built in Arabic?”

Do you think one tells a story differently depending on the culture one is writing it from?

I suppose all manner of things go into developing a person’s literary voice, but I’d hazard a guess that chief among them is what a person has read. And, from that, what they’ve hated and what they’ve loved. If a person grows up reading primarily from the Arabic literary tradition, and also listening to Arabic music and watching—for instance—Egyptian TV series, then they’ll have a particular set of building blocks. Whereas if someone reads primarily from the English literary tradition, while watching CSI Miami and listening to power pop, they’ll have different building blocks.

For instance, I like to imagine that you can tell, from reading him, that the novelist Hilal Chouman reads and enjoys Japanese literature.

Is interest in Arabic fiction growing and to what extent?

I think post-2011, I saw a surge in interest that I’d subtitle, “We should probably be interested in Arabic literature.” This was a tepid interest, as though Arabic literature was something people might be called upon to answer about in a work meeting. But now, since the lit-prize successes of authors such as Jokha al-Harthi, Khaled Khalifa, and Mazen Maarouf, I believe there has been a fresh surge in interest that I’d tentatively subtitle, “Oh! What wonders might I be missing?”


Posted on 25/03/2020 in FICTION Crime, FICTION General, FICTION Literary, FICTION Thrillers, Literary Criticism, Science Fiction


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