Connecting What Has Been Severed with Sudan: The Short Story as it Fills Voids with Imagining

By HISHAM BUSTANI

Translated by ALAN IRID FENDI

 

Every attempt to reach Osman al-Houri has failed. Some corroborative sources have informed me that the man has retreated to an isolated village, that he does not own a cell phone, and that there is no way to reach him. Even more than that, he has evidently given up—deserted, and renounced writing, or so I am told. It is May 2019, and at the moment there is a revolution in Sudan, and people, among them a great number of authors, have taken to the streets and squares, demanding the fall of a regime that has—like many of its “siblings”—weighed down on and repressed them for decades. The Sudanese regime—again like many of its siblings in such circumstances—has shut down the internet for nearly a month now, taken to shooting live bullets at protesters and setting loose its henchmen upon them. By so doing, the regime has further complicated the means of connection with a country whose connection with its Arab surroundings (perhaps excepting Egypt) is already complicated and semi-severed. In light of this, can one even speak of literary connection, especially in a field that in our times has become ever more “elitist”: that of the short story?

In the first place, short story collections by Sudanese authors are unavailable in Jordan, where I live—neither in bookshops nor in public libraries. This, Sudanese authors share with their peers in the community of short story writers throughout the Arab world. Publishing houses that print short stories and poetry bury those books in their storehouses after they’ve been paid the costs of publishing them from the authors themselves. And bookshops do not carry books of poetry and short stories on their shelves because “they don’t sell.” This is, however, a matter for another time and place.

Secondly, there was no way for me to get in touch with Sudanese authors beyond the known and circulating names—and those can be counted on one hand—who belong to what I will dub: “the exclusive club of serious short story writers.”

I saw no way forward but to use what I despise and generally cannot stomach: social, ignorance-spreading, and time-wasting media (that is what they are to me, but this is a second matter that also does not belong in this introduction). To me, social media’s only benefit lies in the ability to reach people, and quickly. And so, having received a modest response from my requests to and private correspondence with select authors and friends, I made up my mind, breathed deeply, shut my eyes, and posted an open invitation, asking for help with my complicated conundrum. The combined outcome of the two measures was agreeable: a young Moroccan writer, Mohamed Khalfouf, sent me an anthology of Sudanese short stories, from which I culled two pieces, one by Osman al-Houri and another by Mustafa Mubarak. Through the same anthology, I was introduced to the stories of Ahmad Al Malik. Another set of stories was sent to me by British author and editor Raph Cormack, co-editor of The Book of Khartoum (Comma Press, 2016) another Sudanese short story anthology, which introduced me to the spell-binding writer Abdel-Ghani Karamalla. Jordanian poet Ghazi al-Theebeh led me to Emad Blake’s texts. American author and editor Marcia Lynx Qualey led me to Lemya Shammat, who in her turn led me to the stories of Bushra Elfadil. Sudanese writers Mohammed Elkhair Hamid, Salma Alnour, and Essam AbuAlgasim sent me many stories, though they selflessly favored the works of others over their own. Likewise, Rania Mamoun answered my request to send a few of her texts for consideration with several collections and works by other authors, never sending any of her own. Through these many channels, I got hold of the texts of Jamal Aldin Ali Alhaj, Bwader Basheer, Ishraga Mustafa Hamid, and Mohamed Badawi Higazi. And so this collection came into being.

Like its predecessors, this portfolio celebrates a collaboration (now in its third year) between The Common and the inveterate Cairene Akhbar Al Adab. The first publishes the texts translated from Arabic into English, and the second carries the texts in their mother tongue. In this collection, you will encounter a wide range of voices, generations, and styles of Sudanese literary short fiction. We find deep and condensed flashes, swinging between realism and surrealism, as in the text of Lemya Shammat, and in Jamal Aldin Ali Alhaj’s delicate study of how “modernizing” projects can debilitate communities and leave behind sorrow and pain that will not heal. We hop on a train (nicknamed “the steamer”) with Ishraga Mustafa Hamid, who nimbly relays a sense of longing and melancholy as the train becomes a metaphor for a dream-like past that has evaporated. Emad Blake (through narratives laden with black humor) delves into the ways sociopolitical repression leads to figurative or even real death.

Bushra Elfadil performs a new dissection on an ever-self-renewing theme: the absurd wait for an absurd thing that must happen, but ultimately does not. Elfadil projects this condition on to an authority that reigns from afar, sparking fear through its infamy, rather than through its actual existence in place and time. The absurdist narrative’s semblance to what we live through today makes Elfadil’s fictive reality seem plausible. Nor is authority absent in Ahmad Al Malik’s story, where it kills both the “zaar” tradition and the husband of the woman who performs its rituals. Al Malik manages to relay this through writing that disobeys chronological order, for chronology has no value in an age typified by excruciating stasis. In Mohamed Badawi Higazi’s story, authority is the primary mover (both governmental authority and the invisible powers that exert influence over the people); it brings to life and sentences to death, it shows and it covers, it operates directly through its own agencies or indirectly through its affiliates, and then instates, empowers, and serves us to another authority: colonialism. Higazi enacts this in a text that draws on oral traditions or folkloric stories—like those told by grandmothers—wherein frightening, mysterious powers are in control and are at long last defeated by epic heroes.

Bwader Basheer leads us through a story rife with symbolism, to the matter of the self, alienation, freedom, and “moving” physically and mentally from a “here” to a “there.” Osman al-Houri takes us to Faulknerian worlds, where conflicts and hardships abound and hide within them personal crises and tragedies that crumble then moulder in an impossible hope; all of this in a text where perspectives shift constantly in a feat of exceptional artistry. Impossible hope takes another form in Mustafa Mubarak’s story, which lays bare the layers of social hypocrisy through the desperate scream of a woman crushed both from within and without. This scream travels unheeded as society shuts its doors upon itself, keeping the tortured voice out in the wild. Here, I must extol the ease with which Mubarak uses the vernacular to deepen the story’s impact. As to Abdel-Ghani Karamalla, his text, I believe, is the pearl of this volume. Karamalla manipulates, mashes, and remolds scenes and characters (both humans and animals) to transport us from a reality to a dream to a past to a future with utterly playful fluidity and ease, and with language that is somehow simple and opulent at the same time.

Surely, as is the case with all anthologies, this portfolio does not represent the entirety of the Sudanese literary scene. Faced with limited print space and the numerous worthy pieces that ultimately found their way to me through my search, I devised a set of three criteria for culling and sifting: the first was artistic and creative value (and this, of course, is a subjective yardstick no-one else but me bears the responsibility for). The second criterion was to eschew those authors whose names are well-known outside of Sudan, those had already attained a reasonable enough footing and there was no need to re-introduce them. Instead, I preferred giving space to “new” authors, so as to make their names known to those who—like me—were ignorant of them previously. The third criterion was ensuring a variety of writing styles, voices, and generations. In this way, the chosen “slice” became relatively representative, although it meant leaving out some authors whose works I know and value and which fit the mentioned criteria.

Lastly, I would like to thank those who helped me compile a broader expanse of short stories from which I could choose, especially those authors who were exemplary in their altruism, which I know—from bitter experience—is extremely rare outside of Sudan. I also thank the translators of this volume for their exceptional effort, and those are: Elisabeth Jaquette, Robin Moger, and Jonathan Wright. Thanks should also be expressed towards The Hindiyeh Museum of Art in Jordan and towards its curator, Hayat Hindiyeh, for providing fascinating Sudanese artworks from the museum’s private collection to accompany this volume. I would as well like to thank Jennifer Acker, Editor in Chief of The Common, and Tariq Al Taher, Editor in Chief at Akhbar Al Adab, for offering up the space for such a collection to appear simultaneously in two different languages on both sides of the Atlantic. As I have mentioned earlier, this portfolio is the third of its kind emerging from this fruitful collaboration. A portfolio of short stories from Jordan and another from Syria were published in 2018 and 2019, respectively. These portfolios will continue each year, exploring the art of the short story in each Arab country: giving readers of Arabic an opportunity to get acquainted with innovative works of this superlative art form; giving readers of English the chance to enjoy literature that was chosen for its artistic merit and not for its gaudiness and preconceived orientalist images; and giving the authors an outlet to access readers in these abysmal times where literary writing has become little more than a burden on its practitioner.

Special thanks go to Masarib Adabiyya, the Sudanese literary magazine that has also featured this volume in a generous gesture, so that it returns once again, after so much wandering, to its motherland Sudan.

Finally, if I had commenced this preamble with complaints about severance, detachment, and the impossibility of contact, I am full of hope that this portfolio shall prove that the short story is capable (through its artistic potential and its imaginative reciprocity with its reader) of connecting the dots and filling the voids. Readers will find themselves in dialogue with these authors, hopefully revealing new sides of their selves and their worlds as they turn the pages.

 

Hisham Bustani is Arabic Fiction Editor for The Common. He 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. 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 Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Residency for Artists and Writers for 2017.

Connecting What Has Been Severed with Sudan: The Short Story as it Fills Voids with Imagining

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