Sahar Khalifeh: ‘I Am A Committed Writer, Or Maybe I Am An Obsessed Writer’

But this is not the whole truth. SK: Because I wanted to reveal secrets. That first novel was serialized and turned into a radio program, and she continued to publish prolifically through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Sahar Khalifeh: ‘I Am A Committed Writer, Or Maybe I Am An Obsessed Writer’

Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh — whose historical novels often center women’s experiences — talks, this Women in Translation Month, about the intersections of her life and writing:

By Tugrul Mende

Sahar Khalifeh published her first novel in 1974, at age 33. Have you read The Mandarins? SK: My novels have been translated into 15 languages. The truth, the real truth, is that the writer, any writer, is made by all the readings she or he makes. It is always Palestine, Palestine under occupation. I was nothing and became something. Why did you decide you wanted to write about your own life, in A Novel For My Story? My characters, in a way, are me. Sahar Khalifeh: The difference is huge. It took me two years to finish it. Thanks to my patience and will. I don’t like to repeat the famous saying “the world is becoming a small village,“ but I have to. Do you work on them separately, first the context then the characters? In the trilogy, I tried to capture our past which leads to our present. But as for the landscape, there is no difference. Obviously, it would be out of the question to get involved in any translation other than the English.  Even during the translation into English, the translator only asks about names or places or plants that he or she finds difficulty in translating to English.  Of course I try to help.  But most of the times I too find it difficult to give the right answer.  For example, when I am asked about the name of a specific plant or flower in English I simply say “I am sorry, I don’t know.”  In this case, the translator has to find a solution, away from me.  And I accept that.  I accept the fact that my capabilities in other languages are short. I also accept the fact that translation is not my field. We now read literature from Latin America, Japan, Iran, Vietnam, Korea and other countries. It is becoming a small village. How do you work on these elements? I only know their names. SK: I usually start by choosing the plot. It is a part of a trilogy. Through the years, more than 40 years, I developed as a writer, as a feminist, and as a deeply politicized and humanized person. This is what I tried to do in this novel and the previous one, as well as the one after. I witness and live through those atrocities and still am living them.  My characters represent what I experience, what I feel, what I think and believe. How was being a novelist different from how you imagined it, when you published your first book in 1974? I am them, whether in this novel or the previous ones or after. We digest what we read and grow. Last year, her classic Bab as-Saha finally appeared in Sawad Hussain’s translation as Passage to the Plaza. We are influenced not just by one or two or ten writers. It is true that the characters are depicted while living at present, but their memories take us back to a previous time, when the struggle for liberation has started. Through the years I learned and learned, and I am still learning. This is a multi-layered novel. What is your relationship with the translator for a novel? When I published my first novel, I was not so clear about what I feel or believe. Wild Thorns, her second novel, was the first to appear in English translation, in 1984, and it was followed by several others. I am a committed writer or maybe I am an obsessed writer.  I am obsessed by occupation because I live it. I read the novel at least five times. When I choose my characters, it becomes easy to follow them wherever they go and live with them or be them.  I do not choose characters if I am not familiar with their backgrounds. I wanted to teach and let others learn. Your work has been widely translated, into English, French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Malay, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, and more. As you can see, it is a semi-historical novel. Of course I’d dreamed of becoming a writer since I was a teenager, but I never thought I would be able to reach this stage, I mean to be translated to other languages, and having my novels taught in foreign universities, tens of foreign universities. SK: I started writing it right after I finished writing Of Noble Origins. It has fictitious characters and real characters, fictitious events and real events. Unfortunately, the only foreign language I know is English. How they move, what they think, their inner secrets, their contradictions and complications, and how strong and helpless they are. Those two writers affected me deeply. This year Hoopoe Fiction published her novel Hubbi al-Awal (My First and Only Love), as translated by Prof. They already know that what they are reading is fiction despite the fact that, at times, that fiction might have elements of truth in it. Without food we never grow. It deals with the past and present at the same time. I witness the atrocities of occupation. Without reading we never write. Readers of novels, I think, are not skeptical like those who read works of social sciences or history. Otherwise, my relationship with other translators is only businesslike.  I only know their names. According to that plot, I choose my characters. SK: Dostoevsky and Simon De Beauvoir. This is the game of writing fiction. 

Who are some of the writers you enjoy reading and re-reading? So my relationship with other translators is usually vague. From that book, I learned how we become women, I mean how we became the other sex. Are there things that you are misunderstood, wrongly emphasized? Excerpts of Sahar Khalifeh’s work online:

University Student, FROM A Novel For My Story, translated by Sawad Hussain

from Picture, Icon, Old Testament, translated by Marilyn Booth

From My First and Only Love, Translated by Aida Bamia

From Passage to the Plaza, translated by Sawad Hussain Is it worth trying? Has translation from Arabic to other languages changed in the last 30 years and the reception of translations? We are influenced by everything we read. Hubbi al-Awal has a complex story with many layers and characters. When did you start writing Hubbi al-Awal, and how does it stand out from your previous novels? Others can learn from that, especially women. I select them from real life.  If they are historical characters, I study their biographies very well and then let my imagination take care of the details. It is a reality that is seen through the eyes of the novelist or created by the novelist. And this is what I consider bliss because it gives me, and gives other novelists, an open space where we can play with reality, or have fun with reality, or ignore reality altogether. We read, we devour. Since I was a young teenager, I started reading them and I never stopped. Just like food. I wanted to reveal my secrets as an oppressed Arab woman and the secret behind each novel. I never thought I would be so strong to face and stand up against those who consider my writings blasphemous or similar to national treason. Whether this occupation is British or Israeli, it is all the same, the same atrocities, the same cruelty, and the same rebellions and revolutions. From Dostoevsky, I learned how characters are made or should be. How has the landscape changed — in terms of being a woman writer, being a Palestinian writer — since you started publishing in the 1970s? I think that readers of novels usually read for enjoyment and a little inspiration and knowledge. My First and Only Love is the second novel in a planned trilogy. It looks like publishing houses in different parts of the world seem to be more interested in publishing literature from other cultures, not just from Arabic culture. SK: All I can say about this is that, to my knowledge, more translations have been done. I was lucky enough to meet those two, face to face, and to enjoy their company as human beings. Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit. And what about The Second Sex? SK: I don’t think that readers from different cultures read my novels differently or notice different things. I never imagined I would be so widely known. Have you noticed that readers in different cultures read your work differently, notice different things? But in certain cases, I happen to meet the translator and in a way become close to her, like in the case with my translator to English, Professor Aida Bamia, and my translator to Korean, Professor Song. Whether we are aware of this fact or not makes no difference. I think it is. SK: Perhaps the only difference is that a feminist woman writer like me usually focusses on female characters with strong personalities. Even when that fiction is realistic, they know that the reality they are reading is not 100% real. Are you in an ongoing conversation or what does your involvement in the translation process look like? Aida Bamia. I am fascinated by most of his work, especially Brothers Karamazov and as for De Beauvoir, what a great writer and philosopher!