[The following interview was conducted with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Sinan Antoon on the relatonship between the Arab uprisings and literature. The interview was originally published on the Kenyon Review Blog.]
1. How do you think literature may or should respond to this spring’s events? What role (or roles) would you say literature has played, and how might those roles change?
Literature always responds to history, of course, but works hastily written under the pressure of responding often risk being pedestrian, but there are exceptions! The revolts are still ongoing and unfolding and we are all still processing their effects, but they have definitely energized all citizens, including writers. The challenge is how to represent these moments in their complexity and in beautiful forms.
Contrary to all the brouhaha about Twitter and Facebook, what energized people in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere, aside from sociopolitical grievances and an accumulation of pain and anger, was a famous line of poetry by a Tunisian poet, al-Shabbi. Poetry, novels, and popular culture have chronicled and encapsulated the struggle of peoples against colonial rule and later, against postcolonial monarchies and dictatorships, so the poems, vignettes, and quotes from novels were all there in the collective unconscious. Verses were spontaneously deployed in chants and slogans and disseminated in clips. The revolution introduced new songs, chants, and tropes, but it refocused attention on an already existing, rich and living archive.
Institutionally and structurally, the revolts further exposed how the state had neutralized certain intellectuals and writers and used them to legitimate its projects. The revolts reignited debates about the relationship between cultural production and state power. The revolts have already debunked the old cultural discourse and are threatening the dominant cultural elite, many of whose figures were at the service of state culture for a variety of reasons.
2. How have these events come to bear on your own writing, reading, and translating?
I have been immensely moved by the courage and determinations of people who face bullets unarmed and are willing to sacrifice their life for freedom. I have written a few articles in Arabic and English and lately a few poems in memory of the fallen protesters in Syria. Watching the revolts unfold took me back to the many poems and writings (in Arabic) about previous struggles and revolts throughout the 20th century. I re-read and I translated a few as an act of solidarity and to illuminate the rich tradition of cultural resistance in the Arab world to Anglophone readers.
3. As a writer deeply engaged both with US literature and literature of the Middle East, what are your hopes now for these literatures and for their relationship?
As to your third question, I’m not that optimistic that much will change on the American side of the equation. Publishing, by and large, is overdetermined by corporate interests and their ideologies. The first deal to make the news after the revolts is about a book by the Egyptian Google executive who was active on Facebook in the run-up to the revolts, Wael Ghoneim. It’s the predictable choice of the mainstream. A middle-class Anglophone corporate executive who will heap praise on Mark Zuckerberg and comfort readers that, somehow, the technological advances of the west toppled these dictators (supported by the west) and not the blood and hard work of organizers and activists.
To inject some optimism I should say that I hope there will be increased interest in the modern and contemporary culture and literature of the Arab world. These revolts have debunked the orientalist myth that portrayed these cultures and societies as static, despot loving, eternally fundamentalist. Now we know how vibrant and dynamic they are. One way to discover how rich and versatile they are is to read their stories and listen to them sing of life and liberty. Some small and university presses have been doing that already. This is an opportunity for others to do the right thing!