On 20 February 2018, Libyan woman writer, Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow 2018, Najwa Binshatwan, gave the annual lecture at St Aidan’s College. I had the honour of introducing her, The following is an extract from my introduction:
“Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist, and playwright. She was an assistant lecturer at the University of Benghazi and was awarded a PhD in human science from La Sapienz University in Rome. She is the author of three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens, which was shortlisted for IPAF 2017 (aka Arabic Booker). In 2003 she received the Arab Creativity Prize at the Sharjah Festival, and her novel The Horses’ Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, when Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture in 2005. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story The Pool and the Piano was included in the Beirut39 anthology, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2010. Her work is also featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, which was published recently by Commapress, and showcases new works by previously unplatformed writers.
Nahla al-Ageli interviewed Binshatwan for Shubak Festival. She wrote, “An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.
There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell, and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that persist in the culture.
Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful, and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.”
One of the themes of the novel, and it has many, is visibility and its perils. In a vivid scene, the young slave endangers herself to have a glimpse of her face. Looking at her reflection in a shard of a broken mirror she becomes visible. That act was penalised not by the racist, misogynist society but by her mother because appearing in the picture, becoming visible even if just to yourself was subversive and might endanger your life.
Slave Pens can sit comfortably alongside great literature about slavery from Haley’s Roots all the way to Toni Morrison’s writings. For many reasons, the novel is a milestone, but the main one is that a woman writer dared to investigate, describe, and expose two slaveries: that of slaves and that of women.”