Michel Moushabeck on Interlink Publishing @ 35: New Directions and Books as the ‘Highest Form of Hope’

I also wanted to share with English-speaking readers the beautiful Arabic and North African literature I so much loved and enjoyed reading while growing up. This is partly as a result of what Interlink is doing and partly due to the attention Arab writers are receiving from some independent and university presses, academic journals, and literary magazines. Reading through criticism online, or excerpts published online or in magazines? Could families with children have gone through the past two pandemic years without reading to their children? The events were well-attended and hugely successful. Moushabeck founded Interlink Publishing, a Massachusetts-based indie that has come to focus works of international literature, history, contemporary politics, art, cultural guides, cookery, and children’s literature. MM: A quick answer to your question would be: All the above. MM: This is an excellent question. In short, publishing children’s books is very different from publishing adult books. At times, Interlink has also created fusion projects across categories, such as the inventive Arab Fairy Tale Feasts, by Karim Alrawi, which brings together stories, children’s literature, and cookery for readers and chefs 8+. Publishing and promoting Arabic literature-in-translation poses numerous challenges—editorial, political, and economic. This fall Interlink is publishing Jalal Barjas’s novel The Bookseller’s Notebooks, which won the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Back in 1987, we established Crocodile Books as our children’s imprint, specializing in multicultural picture books for children as well as YA novels that bring the world closer to American readers in the hope that this will contribute to bringing children of the world closer to each other through literature.  I believe books are the highest form of hope, especially in educating the future young generation about important issues such as climate change, diversity, racial justice, and freedom of expression, as well as learning about other cultures and people and places far away. Taghreed Najjar’s What Shall We Play Now is a fun picture book about the power of imagination from an award-winning female author and pioneer of children’s literature in the Arab world. And we would not be able to do what we do without our experienced children’s editors and a lot of help from teachers, educators, parents, librarians, booksellers, and readers. Next month, we will be releasing Jabbour Douaihy’s The King of India—a favorite of mine—which was shortlisted for IPAF in 2020. Publishing and promoting Arabic literature-in-translation poses numerous challenges—editorial, political, and economic. I read Arabic fiction every time I have a free minute. Submissions from agents? Since IPAF’s inception fifteen years ago, over 80 novels have been translated into 27 or more languages. Something else? He left us an unmatched literary legacy that included eight award-winning works of fiction, including short stories and children’s books. In the early days, most of the fiction-in-translation we published was assigned by Arabic and comparative literature professors for class use. Sadly, the tour was suspended during lockdown, but it will resume in the fall barring any surge in Covid-19.  What are the primary (and/or most successful) ways that Interlink goes about discovering new books? Winners and shortlisted authors become literary celebrities in the Arab world; their works are reprinted numerous times; and are often translated into several languages. His departure has left his beloved Lebanon and his readers throughout the world with a great sense of loss. If I get excited about a new novel I’ve just read, or if a novel has left a profound impact on me, then I will acquire English language rights and commission a translation. MM: This year Interlink is celebrating its 35th anniversary. I often receive recommendations from translators I’ve worked with and from some of the many academic friends I have who teach Arabic or comparative literature. To a large part, we have managed to survive our stay-at-home period because we had books as our daily companions.  Our new season catalog is filled with titles that delight, empower, and educate as well as ones that amplify the voices of BIPOC and tackle important issues ranging from Israel/Palestine (Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for their Village) to timely picture books about race, identity, and the environmental crisis (Wanda, There a Rang-Tan in My Bedroom, Forest Fighter, and Planting Peace). This year, Interlink’s lineup is focused on novels. All five have been brilliantly translated by Paula Haydar. June Rain was shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008; The American Quarter reached the IPAF longlist in 2015; and The King of India was shortlisted for IPAF in 2020.Jabbour was troubled by Lebanon’s devastating economic collapse, especially “the destructive forces that can erase in an instant what is dear to us.” He was outspoken about the criminality, theft, and lies perpetrated by the government and those in power. Against all odds, and in spite of numerous challenges, I’ve witnessed a gradual and healthy increase in interest in Arabic literature-in-translation over the years. (For readers: Paula Haydar has a lovely reminiscence about Douaihy, and this novel, online.) After having spent time with many of his novels, what do you think is Douaihy’s literary legacy?  MM: Jabbour Douaihy was one of Lebanon’s greatest novelists and thinkers. Interlink also has a growing list for younger readers, both of books written in English and translated from Arabic. But all this was not enough to make publishing Arabic fiction a commercially viable venture, even though America’s interventionist wars have contributed to increased interest in learning and teaching about the Arab world and greater awareness of Arabic literature. I also prepared and offered study guides as an added enticement. Not only does the prize help Interlink to discover new and important works of Arabic fiction, it gives international publishers—especially ones who do not have Arabic speaking editors on staff—the confidence to take a chance on translating the IPAF winner or one of the shortlisted novels. There simply is not a level playing field and, as a result, every step of the publishing process is difficult, and often downright impossible. Nora Lester Murad’s debut YA novel, Ida in the Middle, is about a 13-year-old Palestinian American girl trying to grapple with anti-Arab racism at school and her relationship to a homeland she has never seen. Has it changed Interlink’s approach to the discovery of Arabic literature?  Michel Moushabeck: As you well know I’ve been a longtime Trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which, in my view, is the most important, prestigious, and independent literary prize in the Arab world. Every year, I also try to read all the IPAF shortlisted novels before the winner’s announcement. Americans simply would not take a chance on an Arab novelist or one whose name sounded too alien to them, even though all the novels we published at the time were written by leading novelists. Publications and e-zines such as Jadaliyya, ArabLit, Words without Borders, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, The New Yorker deserve a mention. Malak Matar’s Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story is a sensitive and heart-warming story of how a little girl finds strength and hope through the discovery of painting during the 2014 Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. These ideas, and the support and attention we’ve received from booksellers, helped increase exposure and widen the reach of Arabic fiction.  Online sales opened up a new world for us, which made all the difference. ArabLit wanted to touch base with Moushabeck about new and forthcoming books, and the house’s vision for their present and future. But I also find it to be hugely rewarding if you do it right and you are prepared to stick around long enough to reap the rewards. He will be remembered as an Arab literary giant, a true lover of Lebanon, and a believer in the truth and solidarity that he hoped will ensure a better future for Lebanon and its people. Michel Moushabeck on Interlink Publishing @ 35: New Directions and Books as the ‘Highest Form of Hope’ June 9, 2022June 8, 2022 by mlynxqualey In 1987, Palestinian-American author and musician Michel S. Without books to entertain the kids while we worked from home? Submissions from authors? I pitched them to many indie booksellers who loved them and later became Interlink’s prime advocates for fiction-in-translation. He was a master storyteller. In the early days, most of the fiction-in-translation we published was assigned by Arabic and comparative literature professors for class use. Each year, I attended the Middle East Studies Association’s annual convention and I placed new novels in the hands of professors and educators in the hopes that they would later use them in class. I also prepared and offered study guides as an added enticement. In 2018, the IPAF US Book Tour launched with Saud Alsanousi, author of The Bamboo Stalk and his translator Jonathan Wright. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading… The above new and forthcoming titles give you an idea of what we are publishing under our children’s books imprint Crocodile Books. Over the years, Interlink has published many significant works in translation from Arabic, both by towering 20th century figures such as Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi, Ghassan Kanafani, and Nizar Qabbani, and also by younger writers pushing at the boundaries of literature now: Adania Shibli, Alexandra Chrieteh, Youssef Rakha, and others. Thirty-five years ago, when I started Interlink, I had great difficulties selling Arabic fiction-in-translation. Previous IPAF shortlistees published by Interlink include Shahla Ujaily (A Sky So Close to Us, Summer with the Enemy), Inaam Kachachi (The American Granddaughter, The Dispersal), Jana Elhassan (The Ninety-Ninth Floor, All the Women inside Me), Ismail Fahd Ismail (The Old Woman of the River) and two other novels by Jabbour Douaihy (June Rain, The American Quarter). Or have you changed the way you imagine the audiences for your books, and the ways in which you reach those audiences? This is a tremendous achievement and an important step in leveling the playing field and creating awareness about Arabic fiction in the western world. Without picture books and stories to transport them to places they could not visit? I was successful in getting some booksellers to devote a separate shelf for fiction-in-translation so that these novels don’t get lost among the Penguin Classics and the Stephen Kings on the general fiction shelf. an Egyptian novel next to Egypt travel guide, a Moroccan novel next to a travel guide to Marrakesh, etc…). The following year brought Shahad Alrawi, author of The Baghdad Clock and her translator Luke Leafgren. With the introduction of Zoom and virtual webinars and book tours, I foresee a brighter picture ahead with greater interest, improved reach, and healthier sales for Arabic fiction-in-translation. How do you know when you’ve hit upon a children’s book that you must publish? I write a weekly e-newsletter; in it I talk about the writers and the books I am excited about. Each year, I attended the Middle East Studies Association’s annual convention and I placed new novels in the hands of professors and educators in the hopes that they would later use them in class. How are they different from selecting a book for adults? From day one, I was determined to publish the best of the world’s contemporary fiction in translation and bring to North American readers the once-unheard voices of writers who have achieved wide acclaim at home, but are not recognized beyond the borders of their native lands—especially women writers from the developing world. One of the biggest early challenges was getting booksellers to hand-sell the novels. What are your considerations when choosing a book for young readers? I first discovered Interlink’s books as a university student; I think because a friend was assigned one in class and I borrowed it off her. Have the audiences for Interlink’s fictional works changed over the last 20 years? Through his novels we discovered the realities, tragedies, and enigmatic nature of Lebanese society—especially his northern Lebanese town of Zgharta, to which he had a profound attachment. But all this was not enough to make publishing Arabic fiction a commercially viable venture, even though America’s interventionist wars have contributed to increased interest in learning and teaching about the Arab world and greater awareness of Arabic literature. How do you think this literary prize has changed the landscape of Arabic literature, and the landscape of Arabic literature in translation? Interlink published four award-winning novels by Jabbour Douaihy (June Rain, The American Quarter, Printed in Beirut, and The King of India) and we are presently working on the translation of his last work of fiction Poison in the Air. I have discovered several gems this way.  I meet with leading Arab publishers several times a year, at annual publisher conferences as well as at the Frankfurt, London, and Sharjah book fairs. They are bringing out Joumana Haddad’s The Book of Queens, translated by the author; Jabbour Douaihy’s King of India, translated by Paula Haydar; Hammour Ziada’s The Drowning, translated by Paul Starkey; and Jalal Bargas’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning The Bookseller’s Notebooks, also translated by Starkey. We worked closely with professors of Arabic literature and comparative literature departments. Meetings with other publishers at book fairs? Two years before the pandemic upended our lives, I organized the annual IPAF US Book Tour where we brought a winner or shortlisted writer together with the novel’s translator to tour 10 to 12 colleges and universities in the US. I also meet with a few agents, one of whom is Yasmina Jraissati, of Raya Agency, who has my ear and whose taste in literature is close to mine.  In short, Interlink receives more submissions and recommendations than we could ever handle.  Interlink has published many of Jabbour Douaihy’s novels in translation, and Poison in the Air was (sadly) his last. It has a clear mission: to reward the best contemporary Arabic novel written in a given year; to promote and expand the readership of fiction throughout the Arab world; and, lastly, to promote and expand the readership of Arabic fiction-in-translation throughout the rest of world. His insightful descriptions of Zgharta in his award-winning novel June Rain—a masterpiece in which he writes about the vendetta and family rivalry that lead to a massacre in the town’s church—are unforgettable. But I also find it to be hugely rewarding if you do it right and you are prepared to stick around long enough to reap the rewards. Several of your recent titles have been winners (or shortlistees or longlistees) of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. There simply is not a level playing field and, as a result, every step of the publishing process is difficult, and often downright impossible. Introducing Western readers to leading Arab writers, getting them to take a chance on a new novelist, opening their hearts and minds, inspiring them to learn more about other cultures, and presenting them with books that inform, delight, and entertain—as well as ones that counteract negative portrayals, hatred, and fear of the unknown—have been key motivating forces in my journey. During the pandemic, the subscribers to the weekly Interlink newsletter exceeded 40,000 and contributed to widening the audience for our titles. I also encouraged booksellers to also have some fiction on the travel shelf (e.g. People like Margaret Obank of Banipal, Jim Hicks, editor of the Massachusetts Review, Jennifer Acker, editor of Amherst College’s The Common, and many others have worked tirelessly to put Arabic literature-in-translation on the western literary map. There have also been many literary prizes that have come up over the last dozen or so years, which have contributed greatly to the promotion of Arabic literature in translation. Students got a chance to hear, meet, and interact with the IPAF authors and translators.

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