By Mitali Chakravarty

 

Hisham Bustani, the editor of this year’s Best Asian Short Stories from Kitaab, is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments with the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post-colonial modernity in the Arab world. His work has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and it has been said that he “belongs to an angry new Arab generation. Indeed, he is at the forefront of this generation – combining an unbounded modernist literary sensibility with a vision for total change…. His anger extends to encompass everything, including literary conventions.”

Hisham’s fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, including The Kenyon ReviewBlack Warrior Review, The Poetry ReviewModern Poetry in TranslationWorld Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. In 2013, the U.K.-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, and the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers for 2017. In this exclusive, he talks of what went into the selection of the stories and what makes him write.

 

You are author of five collections of short stories, poetry and hybrid forms. How many short story collections have you edited before? Were they in English or Arabic?

Hisham: I have a long list of editorial credits behind (and before) me. First of all, I am currently the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, responsible for curating an annual country- or theme-based portfolios of Arabic short stories in English translation. So far we two of those portfolios were published, one from Jordan (Issue 15, Spring 2018) and the other from Syria (Issue 17, Spring 2019). The forthcoming portfolio in Issue 19 (Spring 2020) will feature stories in translation from Sudan. These portfolios are simultaneously published in Arabic in the Egyptian literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab. So I’ve established alongside The Common’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker, and Akhbar al-Adab’s editor-in-chief  Tariq al-Taher, a trans-Atlantic literary collaboration in that respect.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

hedy habra headshot 11Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because it seems like the most natural thing for me to do. I have always loved writing, whether critical essays, stories, poems, or recording my thoughts in a journal. It is a way of initiating a dialogue with other authors’ work, or paintings, and with other ideas. Writing helps one make sense of obsessions, dreams, emotions, but also helps, as well as reading, to transcend everyday reality, and inhabit a parallel world that can be constantly reshaped by the imagination.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My second collection of poetry, Under Brushstrokes (Press 53, 2015) is, for the most part, inspired by artwork. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted the cover art, as well as for my first collection, Tea in Heliopolis. In these poems, I try to delve under the artists’ brushstrokes to unravel hidden meanings or create a new version of the artwork, using the music and colors of language as tools.

In Under Brushstrokes, I have tried to use paintings as a point of departure for a flight of the imagination; an attempt at transforming a two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional, almost cinematic rendition that involves all five senses and explores characters’ interiority. I am currently working on two poetry manuscripts in progress, one of them a bilingual Spanish and English collection, and the other inspired by the fissures caused by displacement, and the contrast between past and present.

by Desmond Kon

Gwee

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

That is the question. Writing is terrible work. Your closest human companion is the guy in the mirror you’re sick of. The job doesn’t pay. In fact, you become really poor – and for what purpose? To wrest from life some nugget of uncelebrated truth. You feel like you’re wasting your time. Meanwhile, the authority and people with all kinds of agenda take turns to politicise you, to your detriment. Even some writers, who you’d think should know better, come at you. Then the cycle restarts. So why write? I don’t know!

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

It is practically done. I think I can disclose that my new collection of poems is called The Other Merlion and Friends. This pays tribute to the dead, missing, and invisible heroes of Singapore and is a sequel of sorts to my first collection of verse from 1998, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? Yes, it’s my long-awaited funny book and possibly my last of this kind.

“Now, writers have to conform to market rules to ensure their works can be sold and read globally. This global influence can be so cruel that non-native English writers may consider writing in their mother languages inferior and may prefer writing in English instead,” says Brazilian author Bernando Carvalho

bernardo-carvalhoAccording to Carvalho, the hegemony of English language has created an atmosphere where non-native speakers are accepted mostly only if they write in English incorporating some of their local slang or ethnic experience. At the same time, the Anglo-Saxon world uses this multiculturalism as an excuse to not translate works from other languages to English, he said.

Carvalho gave examples of 19th century writer Machado de Assis, arguably the best Brazilian writer ever, and the 20th century Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges during his talk. He said these writers used the Western literary canon but transformed it with their own local sensibility to create a new and exceptional body of writing that was reflective and relevant domestically. They were able to use their peripheral status as an asset, Carvalho said.