Posts featuring Tahar Ben Jelloun

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Updates from Spain, Morocco, and the United States, from the Asymptote team

This week, we visit Morocco with new Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman, who tells us about a new play based on a classic novel. Then in Spain, we have a publishing update with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski, and onto the United States, we strap in for today’s Presidential Inauguration and writers’ reactions to the historic event. 

Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman reports from Morocco:

A theatrical interpretation of Mohammed Khair Ed-dine’s novel Le Déterreur [نباش القبور], adapted by Cédric Gourmelon and starring Ghassan El-Hakim, is currently on tour in Morocco, with the next performance set to take place on January 21 at the House of Culture [دار الثقابة] in Tetouan.  In the novel, a man from southern Morocco shares his countercurrent perspectives on living in a marginalized community inside a wider, fractured, postcolonial space as he recounts his life story.

Winner of numerous literary awards, including Jean Cocteau’s Les infants terribles literary prize for his novel Agadir, Khair Ed-dine (or “The Blue Bird,” as he is sometimes called) mainly wrote poetry and novels in French. He is credited with establishing a new style of writing, what he coined guérilla linguistique, that resists, in both form and content, linguistic or societal domination. Considering his prolific contributions to the genre of revolutionary writing, it is unsurprising that Khair Ed-dine is commonly grouped among renowned, twentieth century North African authors writing in French, such as Assia Djebar, Yacine Kateb, Abdellatif Laabi, Driss Chraibi, and Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Some of Khair Ed-dine’s work has been translated into German and English. For more about the German translation of his posthumously published novel Once Upon a Time There Was a Happy Couple (Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar), Qantara.de published this article, which includes a summary of the book with excerpts and information about the writer.  Similarly, to read a sample of Khair-Eddine’s poetry translated into English, see this piece from Jadaliyya, that includes four poems from his collection Ce Maroc!

In other literary news, only a few more weeks until Morocco’s largest book fair will be back!  The 23rd edition of the International Book Fair in Casablanca will open on February 9.

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In Conversation with Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz

Our editor-in-chief talks with the co-translators of Tahar Ben Jelloun's About My Mother

Lee Yew Leong: First of all, how would you classify this new book from Tahar Ben Jelloun? The story opens with an autobiographical narrator (Ben Jelloun himself) talking about his ailing mother, but then changes mode with italicized passages, where we get stories about his mother’s past recreated from her perspective.

Ros Schwartz: Do we have to classify it? I think there’s a problem with trying to categorize books by non-Western writers which often don’t follow a linear narrative arc according to traditional European classifications. I appreciate that doing so makes life easier for publishersand is essential when entering books for prizes and applying for subsidiesand for booksellers, but my experience of translating Francophone writers such as Ben Jelloun and Dominique Eddé (Lebanese author who writes in French) is that their books defy categorisation. So while this book is strongly autobiographical, recounting the demise of Ben Jelloun’s mother, it also has a strong fictional element where he imagines what might be going on in his mother’s Alzheimer’s-raddled mind.

Lulu Norman: Yes and also into the past, when he imagines her life as a girl and what it must have been like for her in the Fez of the 1940s; there’s a more obviously ‘fictional’ feel in those passages. The narrator, who is called Tahar, pieces together the story of her life, constructing a narrative out of what he knows and what he imagines. Ben Jelloun calls the book a novel, in order I suppose to give himself the fullest leeway and perhaps avoid any ruction in life, since everyone’s memory is so subjective.

LYL: Could you share with our readers what went on behind the scenes of this project? How both of you got attached to this translation, for example? How did English PEN play a part in the materialization of the book, and how long did you take to complete the manuscript?

RS
: This project is very dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to translate Ben Jelloun ever since I read L’enfant de sable in 1985. A couple of years ago I’d just finished translating Escape by Dominique Manotti for Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia and he mentioned that he’d just acquired Sur ma mère. Gary, this one’s for me, please. It’s funny because as a translator you can get typecast. Gary had me down as doing crime fiction. Anyway, he immediately said yes, and wrote to Tahar to make sure he was OK with my doing the translation. In the meantime, there was a radical change of management and direction at Arcadia, and the project was dropped. I was devastated and wrote to Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard, to ask if I could seek another publisher. I took the book to Lynn Gaspard at Saqi who snapped it up. Sadly Gary passed away before the book was published, which is why we have dedicated our translation to him. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “About My Mother” by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Her memory’s been toppled, lies scattered over the damp floor. Time and reality are out of kilter.

Since she’s been ill, my mother’s become a frail little thing with a faltering memory. She summons members of her family who are long dead. She talks to them, is astonished that her mother hasn’t come to visit, and sings the praises of her little brother who, she says, always brings her presents. They file past her bedside, sometimes they linger. I don’t interrupt them, I don’t like to upset her. Keltum, her paid companion, complains: ‘She thinks we’re in Fez, the year you were born!’

Mother’s revisiting my childhood. Her memory’s been toppled, lies scattered over the damp floor. Time and reality are out of kilter. She gets swept away by the emotions that come surging back. Every quarter of an hour, she asks me: ‘How many children do you have?’ Every time, I answer in the same even tone. Keltum is agitated and interrupts to say she can’t stand Mother’s repeated questions any more.

Mother’s afraid of Keltum. She’s a woman whose eyes betray her wicked thoughts and she knows it. When she speaks to me, she looks at the floor. When she greets me, she’s obsequious, bowing and attempting to kiss my hand. I don’t want to push her away, or put her in her place. I pretend not to know what she’s up to. I can see fear in my mother’s eyes. Fear that Keltum might leave her on her own when none of us are here. Fear that she won’t give her her medication. Fear that she’ll let her go without food, or worse, give her meat that’s gone off. Fear that she might spank her, as if she were a naughty child. In one of her lucid moments, my mother said to me: ‘I’m not mad, you know. Keltum thinks I’m a little girl again. She tells me off, she threatens me, but I know it’s the pills playing tricks on me. Keltum’s not a bad person, she’s just prickly. She’s tired. She’s the one who washes me every morning, you know, son; she’s the one who cleans up the stuff that leaks out of me. I couldn’t ask that of you, or your brother, so Keltum’s here for that too. It’s as well to forget the rest …’ READ MORE…