Arabs Writing in English

The full text of Hani Bargouthi’s interview for 7iber.com:

1. Could you walk me through the process of deciding to write your novels?

The creative process is complex and has a mystery to it. You do not ‘decide’ to write your novels. They come to life on their own volition. Issues germinate and at one point it becomes necessary to express your enthusiasms through the medium of fiction. Each novel tackled questions that I was grappling with or exposes an injustice through a medium that hopefully humanizes and beautifies.

2. Where did choosing to write in English fit into the process? Why did you decide to write in English, despite the subject matter mostly being Arab countries, characters and storylines?

I didn’t choose to write in English. The British Council gave me a scholarship to do an MA in Britain, and as a freelance journalist then the idea of doing a creative writing degree was appealing. I wrote my first novel in English and then went back to Jordan, studied Fusha Arabic and was determined to write in my mother tongue. But in the 1980s oppression was the order of the day at every level whether political or personal. I could not breathe let alone write.  Let me quote Sartre, ‘The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.’ One of the prerequisites for writing is freedom. So I decided to go back to the UK and do a Ph.D. in creative writing. After that – as Conrad said – English became a capability.

3. How did writing in English affect the publication process, and was it easier to find a publisher in English than it would have been to find an Arab one? Did this contribute to writing in English?

Actually it is very easy to find a publisher in Arabic. All you have to do is pay them and you get published. This is how most publishing houses in the Arab world function: authors pay publication costs.

In Britain the story is different. Publishing is on merit only and you cannot buy your way into it. I wrote because I was silenced by my society and finding a voice in whatever language was essential for my survival. I honestly didn’t expect to be published or catered for an audience.

4. Did you find it easier to write in English considering some of the subject matter being taboo?

Yes, at the beginning. In Nisanit I was free to write whatever I wanted and because of that newly-found freedom the text is full of four-letter words. Fusha Arabic, which is a product of a male-dominated culture, is masculine and riddled with taboos. So I took refuge in another language and wrote about sensitive issues. But after writing in English for a while I discovered its own restrictions so each language has a cultural residue that comes with prohibitions and etiquettes. A skilled writer navigates through all of that.

5. How do you feel the work’s publication in English has affected the size and type of audience?

There is no doubt that if you write in English your audience is international. My books were published in eighteen countries and sold well in Australia, the USA, India etc. That wouldn’t have been possible if I wrote in Arabic. However more and more Arabs read and the audience in the Arab world now is considerable.

6. Would you be open to your work being translated to Arabic? How involved would you like to be in the process?

I was translated into Arabic. The Arabic translation of My Name is Salma went into a third edition, which I am really pleased about. I was completely engaged in the translation process and oversaw every word, every sentence.  By the way the translation is faithful to the English original and not a single word was omitted or idea censored. Willow Trees Don’t Weep is being considered for translation into Arabic.

7. Given the subject matter, how do you think people would have received the work had it been written in Arabic instead?

Judging from the reviews and my engagement with readers of the Arabic translation the reaction is overall positive despite the controversial subject matter. The Arab world is in turmoil and readers are eager for literary works that tackle taboos and sensitive issues.

8. Do you feel that the Arabic language is equipped to cover all the topics discussed in your work?

Now I think it is. Language is just a tool and if you master it you can create whatever you want: feminist, dystopian or magic realist novels. But women, for example, have to expose its misogyny and purge it first.

9. Will you continue to write in English?

I don’t know where the journey will take me after finishing Petra Mon Amour, the novel I am working on. Will it take me back to writing in Arabic, my mother tongue? Who knows? Watch this space.

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