And she didn’t want to take away another woman’s agency! In this interview from 2015, Rachael Daum discusses urinary-tract infections, menstrual blood, and the ghost of colonialism with acclaimed Lebanese novelist and scholar Alexandra Chreiteh:
By Rachael Daum
Something I really admire about both of your novels so far is your head-on approach to very, shall we say, earthly matters. I wanted a woman there just with her body, not constructing her identity against anyone or anything else. I wanted to deal with the female body in a way that was explored not through someone else’s gaze. Lots of slang, too, which is also important—it’s very subversive. I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go. Rachael Daum works as the Communications and Awards Manager of the American Literary Translators Association. Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings?
AC: Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. I did not want to depict women as bad variations on men, which I feel is the way they are often portrayed in social space and discourse in Lebanon. I respect her work as a translator—she is so involved in the texts she translates, and it’s important for her to respect the author’s intention. In Always Coca-Cola, Abeer gets her period, and in Ali and His Russian Mother, the protagonist is prone to UTIs, and you write very viscerally about the flow of blood and urine, respectively. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories. It’s a kind of locus of power: the social structures of authority are recreated within language if you do nothing to stop that. I kept asking myself: when is blood pure and when is it impure? She holds a Ph.D. In Ali and His Russian Mother, it was very important for me to address a very certain type of heroic discourse. I know you are a doctoral candidate at Yale University — what’s your research in?
AC: My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. Why did you choose to do this?
AC: This was the most important thing for me to deal with while I was writing. So what are you working on now? The reality is that we deal with these things on a daily basis, and we need to explore them. For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. Magical realism became something more to do with dealing with minority identities and the history of people who did not benefit from national identities and literature. Surrealism in Arabic literature came from intellectuals in France, from people who came to know this branch and the artistic relationships between them, and brought it over to Arabic-speaking countries. I know you are a doctoral candidate at Yale University—what’s your research in?
AC: My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. Of course, in times of war, women are the biggest losers, but they are often reduced to metaphors. AC: Michelle and I are very good friends! I needed to address the contrast between these two levels of existence and discourse. Women are always there as an erotic body, depicted in sexual ways, and naturally the issue of female desire is a big problem. What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? I think she has a bold, unique voice. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and is the author of two novels, Always Coca-Cola and Ali and his Russian Mother. Secondly, in incorporating magical realism into the Arabic model, it was honestly less to do with post-colonialism and third world solidarity, and more with post-national consciousness. This was then seen as a chance for cultural exchange — there was a relationship, a solidarity in third world countries: there are certain similarities in South America and the Middle East, and this lead to a chance for literary exchange, and a chance to be taken translated and taken seriously in world literature. They are always represented by someone else, through the authority of someone else, and not through their own authority. And I wanted to show something else, the actual physical needs of someone, a woman, going though war. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. The issue with the translation of Always Coca Cola for me was that, in the original text, I tried to make the prose as clear as possible, and to make it flow as well as possible. Michelle’s political position made her do something very different with the English text: I felt it was choppy and sometimes awkward, and it was part of her political work as a translator. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. It’s used a lot in times of war. And there’s a lot of young Arabic writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. I needed to talk about the real, everyday struggles of war, about the huge dissonance between the “un-noble” need to go to the bathroom and the noble-sounding calls to sacrifice oneself for one’s country. And remember: talking about periods in fus7a is not insulting, because periods are not insulting! Do you think that there is an Arabic avant-garde? And then [Naguib] Mahfouz won Nobel Prize in 1988, and we started questioning the role of Arabic literature within world literature. I think she has a bold, unique voice. I’m interested in this, and why you chose to have your readers confront these subjects? So what are you working on now? Why should authority only be held by a certain group that has grammar and the legal system on their side? You can reach more people in fus7a than you can in dialect. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. Should a character pee in colloquial or Modern Standard Arabic? Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings?
AC: Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. One way she tries to avoid this is that she makes sure the reader always know it’s a translation, by not allowing her or him to have too smooth a ride. Photo from Tufts University
Alexandra Chreiteh: First of all, it is the source of a lot a lot of frustration for me — that is, I am really frustrated with the way that women are regulated in social and literary space. There was a discussion in intellectual circles which exploded after Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s winning the Nobel Prize, like this placed Latin American literature in the realm of world literature — where would Arabic literature stand? I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go. Everyone can use fus7a — why should it only address very “noble” ideas and “noble” causes? What is your relationship with Michelle Hartman, your translator, like? To break the authority of language and of social space, I tried to infect fus7a with the music of these women’s own language, while bending fus7a to make it do what I wanted. And there’s a lot of young Arabic[-language] writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. Periods are subversive, everything is subversive! As with any translation project, there is conflict and collaboration; how do you navigate this, particularly as your English is very good and you have the luxury (or curse!) of being able to read the translation? Because minorities always get placed against nationalism — this was a chance to better break this down. For me, the way to stop it was to write about young women in Beirut dealing with really important issues, and some unimportant issues, but all of these almost never make it into fus7a in the voice of these women. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. In the end, we realized that we were dealing with two different texts. This is tricky, but I feel like it was important for me to give at least the protagonist agency over her own body, or to portray the ways in which women’s agency is complicated or lacking because of certain attitudes towards their bodies. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. Her original work and translations have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Two Lines Journal, EuropeNow, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. They are rarely allowed to exist for themselves. What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. third-world relationship. Of course the woman’s body is discussed there always as a metaphor — the female body that’s raped stands for the loss of sovereignty over land, or is killed to be conquered; [there’s] the mother’s body that gives the nation its sons. But oftentimes women’s bodies are either sexualized or given a sort of sanctity, or both, and this sanctity is harmful. For Michelle, translated texts by Arab women risk being treated as commodities to be consumed. You choose to write in fus7a about very colloquial matters. I was reading an article the other day about how Arabic surrealism (which seems to be on the rise in Egypt) is a direct effect of colonialism. We talk a lot. (If there is any such intention!) Basically she wanted me to be as involved as I felt comfortable in the translation. Engaging literature kind of broke down, became more individualistic, and the pan-Arabic mentality kind of didn’t work anymore. For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. *
Alexandra Chreiteh is is Mellon-Bridge Assistant Professor of Arabic and International Literary and Visual Studies. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature. Particularly written in fus7a, or Modern Standard Arabic? We, as Lebanese women, and I think as women in general, have to hide these things [such as periods and urination], we have to be ashamed of these things. Writing in fus7a is always already a translation, because you need to translate your own thoughts into writing, and the fact that the pulse of everyday life does not flow through fus7a makes it rigid, especially when it comes to the description of the mundane. As a result, there seems to be a first-world vs. There are of course female authors who write about female desire, and that’s great. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories. And of course there are colloquialisms in the novel, and the mixture was very important to me. For me, fus7a is a very difficult tool to use. Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. Surrealism simply doesn’t deal with identity in the same way. And of course magical realism doesn’t break completely with colonialism — the ghost of colonialism is always there — but it just presents a different set of priorities. It is a question of who owns language and who owns the right to express herself or himself, to make space for herself in society and in literature. From the Archives: Alexandra Chreiteh on Writing About Menstruation in Modern Standard Arabic
In what sort of language should an author write about something as banal and contested as menstruation? What do you think about that?
AC: Well, I think it’s important to first draw a line between surrealism and magical realism.