Posts filed under 'marginalized voices'

Zeinab Hefny’s A Pillow for Your Love: Confronting the Shiite-Sunni Conflict

Hefny boldly punctures Saudi biases with a taboo-shattering love story.

This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.

A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.

However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.

Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. READ MORE…

Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

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Translator Sean Sell on Contemporary Indigenous Literature in Mexico

Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.

During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.

Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?

Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time.  Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.

It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.

Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics.  I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world.  I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

 *****

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Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part III

Tell these sons of the earth / That we are all bothers.

This week, as part of our ongoing feature on Indian poetry, tied to our Special Feature in the Winter 2017 Issue of Asymptote, we present two writers of the Miyah poetry movement, both translated here by Shalim M Hussain. Like Siraj Khan, featured in the new issue, they advocate the use of language to defend the rights of the marginalized Bengal-origin, Assamese Muslim community to which they belong. Miyah is a term used interchangeably to mean illegal immigrant or Bangladeshi, and is targeted at the Muslims who live in the Char Chapori region of Assam.  In the spring of 2016, members of the Char Chapori community began reclaiming the term Miyah via poetry posted on social media, and a movement was born. 

My Mother (1 May 2016)
by Rehna Sultana

I was dropped on your lap my mother
Just as my father, grandfather, great-grandfather
And yet you detest me, my mother,
For who I am.
Yes, I was dropped on your lap as
a cursed Miyah, my mother.

You can’t trust me
Because I have somehow grown this
beard.
Somehow slipped into a lungi
I am tired, tired of introducing myself
To you.
I bear all your insults and still shout,
Mother! I am yours!
Sometimes I wonder
What did I gain by falling in your lap?
I have no identity, no language
I have lost myself, lost everything
That could define me
And yet I hold you close
I try to melt into you
I need nothing, my mother.
Just a spot at your feet.
Open your eyes once mother
Open your lips
Tell these sons of the earth
That we are all bothers.
And yet I tell you again
I am just another child
I am not a ‘Miyah cunt’
Not a ‘Bangladeshi’
Miyah I am,
A Miyah.
I can’t string words through poetry
Can’t sing my pain in verse
This prayer, this is all I have.

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A Moveable Feast: A Year of Reading Women in Translation

In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked.

This August marked the third anniversary of #WomenInTranslation month, a much-needed attempt to redress the balance between male and female authors within translated fiction. In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked by publishers. The numbers paint a rather depressing picture, since according to Three Percent’s database, translated literature makes up approximately 3 percent of the literature published in English-speaking markets, and women make up a fraction of that — a mere 30 percent, or 0.9 percent of the literature that makes it to stores.

In this respect, #WIT Month is a fantastic way of highlighting women’s voices through the power of social media – demonstrating that not only are these books read, but that there is a large audience with a voracious appetite for literature in translation penned (and translated) by women. But I suspect that, like many others, once the dust has settled and we roll into Fall, my reading habits fall back into routine. The culture industry reflects the character of the society that it markets to, and the fact remains that it is considerably harder for women to get their work to appear to English than their male counterparts. If the problem is to achieve any sort of resolution, #WIT Month needs to first inspire a recognition of the gender biases within the industry and reading habits at large, and to introduce readers to women authors that end up being overlooked or that they might not otherwise have heard of — in short, WIT Month should become a moveable feast.

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