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PEN World Voices Festival: This Critical Moment (Part II)

By David Varno

PEN World Voices Festival After Eric Banks's and Rigoberto Gonzalez presented on German and Mexican literature at this past Friday's panel featuring the National Book Critics Circle (see more in Part One of the coverage), Laila Lalami, past NBCC Balakian Award candidate, spoke on Egyptian novelist and playwright Nawal El Saadawi, who is giving this year's Arthur Miller speech tonight (look for Geoff Dyer's coverage).

"Much of what we come across on Saadawi focuses on her nature as a feminist writer,ë Lalami said, íbut in re-reading her work, I was struck by how often she returns to her other major theme, the authoritarian rule that Egypt has struggled under for the past 50 years.ë

The author happened to be the room, so Lalami spoke at first with a bit of nervousness, but managed to bring out an insightful, celebratory and critical discussion of her work. To illustrate her point on Saadawi as a political writer, she referenced the novel God Dies by the Nile, in which íthe character of the mayor rules the village as though it's his own private property.ë She continued: íIt's worth noting that Saadawi was imprisoned by Sadat in 81, and received death threats from the other end—religious fundamentalists— and now she targets Sadat's successor.ë

This Critical Moment Lalami's motivation for this point seems to be the fact that Saadawi is known in the west more for her feminist writings. During the Q&A period of the panel, she argued that western publishers are motivated to translate only certain examples of Arab literature, either through national tokenism or in pursuit of sure-selling sensational subjects, for example terrorism, sex, and the veil, and that in the meantime much of the qualities and concerns of the region's literature are ignored.

Lalami did stress Saadawi's importance as a feminist for having paved the way for younger generations, but suggested that her message is restrictive now, in the sense that feminists have become concerned with celebrating the body in addition to struggling for equality.

Next, Alissa Valles spoke for NBCC board member Kevin Prufer on Basque poet Bernardo Atxaga, and on the emergence of a Basque canon. Valles also submitted a plea for Atxaga to be more widely translated.

In the 70s, she said, there were 100 books published in Basque per year, and now it's pushing 2000. Atxaga's novel The Accordionist's Son is available from Graywolf, as well as a book from fellow Basque poet Kirmen Uribe (Meanwhile Take My Hand). íHopefully,ë Valles said, íGraywolf will publish Atxaga's poetry: the necessary prelude to modern Basque poetry.ë

Valles also made an interesting comment, in reference to last night's World Voices translation slam, on the nature of multiple translations on a single work. While some translators are very competitive, and treat the project as though participating in a boxing match in their reach to mark the definitive translation, others work to complement other translations, which she believes is a much more effective way for readers to come closer to the original work.

To close, NBCC president Jane Ciabattari spoke on Zimbabwean short story writer Pettina Gappah. She was excited to come across her short story collection this year, An Elegy for Easterly, which features a ívivid and revolting depiction of [Robert] Mugabe,ë president of the nation since 1980. Ciabattari discussed a story that takes the viewpoint of a widow on her husband and reflects: íAge and AIDS will do its work, even among the most gallant of heroes.ë

Ciabattari sees Gappah, who is now based in Geneva, as an heir of Doris Lessing and Tsi Tsi Dangarambga , and she shared the anecdote of Lessing's crusade to have Dangarambga's Nervous Condition published, first in England, then in Zimbabwe. Gappah is also informed by the now, she said, íintrigued by her country's history and shaped by new attitudes….Gappah's stories give a human context to the headlines we see each day as Zimbabwe lurches from crisis to crisis.ë

photo copyright © 2009 Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

Published May 4, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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