Words Without Borders in December: Female Sudanese Novelists ‘Caught in a Limbo’

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‘Not being Arab nor African enough,’ translator Sawad Hussain writes, a woman writing in Sudan is likely not to be supported ‘by her own literary ecosystem,’ making English translation all too rare.

Yasmeen Abdullah’s ‘The Butterfly Effect.’ Image: By permission of the artist and provided by Words Without Borders to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Arabic in Sudan
In her introductory essay, out today (December 2) in the new edition of Words Without Borders magazine, the UK-based translator Sawad Hussain concludes, “As you dive into these poignant excerpts, savor the literature for its creativity, experimentation, and musicality … but just as important, remember what it took for these voices to reach you.”

Hussain is familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers, of course. Based in the United Kingdom, in Cambridge, she joined us in September for a discussion of translation from the Arab world, which we were glad to present with the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in Abu Dhabi. We’ll embed that conversation for you below. (The Sheikh Zayed program has just produced a round of six new longlists.)

This time, we find Hussain serving as guest editor for the newly released December edition about a potential “double marginalization” faced by women writers in Sudan.

She starts with the simple fact of the scarcity of Sudanese women’s writings in English translation.

Sawad Hussain

“Zeinab Belail, one of Sudan’s preeminent writers, has been publishing literary works for over thirty years. Why have we never come across her work in English till today?

“Of the five writers featured in this issue, Rania Mamoun is the only one to have appeared in translation before.

“Is there some sort of double marginalization at play? Perhaps, for not only are they women, but also Sudanese, caught in a limbo at times of not being Arab nor African enough.”

Hussain uses comments provided to her by writers she presents this month, indicating that Khartoum isn’t rushing to make things easier for women’s creativity.

“There is a patriarchal mentality that prevails throughout Sudanese society,” novelist Ann El Safi tells her, “and an extremely high sensitivity toward what female authors are writing about, especially when it seemingly contradicts societal values.”

El Safi lives outside Sudan, and when she returned to discuss her Orbit of Temptation (2014), “she was met with heavy criticism and even threatened,” Hussain writes.

“Her novel portrays an empowered female character who takes her life into her own hands, having her own affair after suspecting her husband’s infidelity. One critic even went so far as to demand she rewrite the book.”

Hussain tells us that in 2014 and 2015, only 11 novels by women were published in Sudan, “nearly equaling the output of female authors in the 50 years between 1948 and 2000.” Her research shows that between 1948 and 2015 only 10 percent of novels published in Sudan were written by women.

And even those who get into print, she says, are faced with a male-dominated corps of critics. “Male critics simply do not appreciate the courage it takes for women to write in our society,” says Zeinab Belail. And without criticism, the content has little market visibility, which can lead publishers to doubt that these works might succeed in translation: too few sales at home.

“Sudanese women writers need to be seen as separate entities from their female characters so that we aren’t prosecuted for our characters’ actions and decisions.”Sara Al-Jack

What’s more, a writer of either gender in Sudan, Hussain writes, faces “lack of marketing support, poor distribution of books, weak editing standards in houses, nonexistent financial support from governmental bodies, a dearth of training for publishers.”

And here’s something Western writers and readers might not even imagine: Women who are writing inside Sudan, Sara Al-Jack tells her, “need to be seen as separate entities from their female characters so that we aren’t prosecuted for our characters’ actions and decisions.” How would Gillian Flynn fare if she were considered one in the same with Amy Dunne in Gone Girl?

By the time you reach her brief commentary on each of the five pieces she’s chosen for this issue, you realize why Hussain is talking about the difficulty of Sudanese women’s writerly voices reaching us in English at all. And in this much-needed 2020 season of generosity, just getting to see these works is a gift from Words Without Borders’ editorial director Susan Harris and guest editor Hussain.

“It goes without saying,” Hussain writes, “that if women’s works are repeatedly neglected, pushed aside whether in print or on radio or television, then Sudanese readers—let alone other Arab ones—are less likely to know about these books and pick them up.”

In the December Edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

Writers whose work is represented in the December 2020 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ include, from left, Rania Mamoun, Ann El Safi, Zeinab Belail, and Sara Al-Jack

  • At the Coffee Shop” is a novel excerpt by Rania Mamoun, translated by Nesrin Amin. This tale of sudden violence is from Mamoun’s novel Son of the Sun (2013). Mamoun is a Sudanese activist, novelist, and writer. She has an earlier novel in Arabic, Green Flash (2006) and her short story collection, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020. It was translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Comma Press in 2019.
  • Freedom of Flight” is excerpted from Like Spirit  (Kama Rauh, 2016), a novel by Ann El Safi. The excerpt is translated to English by Nariman Youssef and is narrated by a falcon. El Safi is Sudanese and divides her time between the United Arab Emirates and Canada. Her other published novels include Folak al-Ghuwaya (The Ark of Seduction, 2014), Innahu Huwa (It Is Him, 2017), and Khubz al-Gajr (The Bread of Gypsies, 2019).
  • Al-Nar Street” is a novel excerpt by Zeinab Belail, translated by Nesrin Amin. It’s set on a street separating a slum from a prosperous city and comes from Belail’s Nabat Al-Sabbar (The Cactus Plant), for which she won the Sudanese Martyr Al-Zubair Muhammad Salih Prize. This is the third and best-received novel by, Belail, who has sat, herself, on literary award committees.
  • Basma’s Dream” is an excerpt drawn from Amna al-Fadl’s novel Ba’d alladhi dara baynana (Some of What Happened between Us, 2018). The excerpt here is translated by Katherine Van de Vate and features a journalist staying at a women’s prison and having a recurring dream. Al-Fadl is a Sudanese poet, journalist, and activist who lives in Khartoum. She’sis the general director of publishing for Gosasat and also writes a literary column and other work for al-Sahafah newspaper. Her 2017 collection of essays is titled Qusasat: Ma tabaqqa min dam’ (Clippings: The Tears that Remained).
  • The Birth of the Spirit” is a novel excerpt by Sara Al-Jack translated by Yasmine Zohdi. The excerpt comes from her novel The Mites, involving a book about the origin of the Nile. Sara Hamza Al-Jack writes short stories as well as novels. Her published works include the collections Secret Prayers (2009) and Propaganda (2017), and the novel Once Upon a Betrayal (2013), for which she won the Tayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing. Al-Jack has recently founded a publishing house, Dar Al-Faal.

And in El Safi’s “Freedom of Flight,” we read her raven character saying:

“A female of the human race has made me feel like I was made for her alone. I know full well that she would not look twice at someone like me. My slender smooth feet, my red-and-orange rimmed eyes, and my soft coat of grey and white feathers, would fill her with nothing but amusement. In her beautiful eyes, I’m like any other falcon.

“I don’t tire of waiting. Every day I comb the roads to her house, and the roads that lead into and out of the city. I decipher the clouds and the passing gusts of air. I ask when she will come and receive no answer.

“Now I have decided. I will travel to search for her in every place. I will put my life in danger. Why should it matter? What good is there in my life if she might be in danger while I’m not there to help in any way I can?”

Below is our discussion of translation from Arabic with Sawad Hussain and Canadian publisher Robert Morgan.


More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here. More from us on Arabic is here, and more of our coverage of markets in Africa is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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