Edited by Raphael Cormack and Max Shmookler, The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction is a testament to literary diversity in Sudanese literature. This collection of short stories on Khartoum, all originally written in Arabic, raises the concept of the “city as muse.” Khartoum is a cosmopolitan place with complex history posed to generate strong storytelling. The stories in the collection range from expository, to satirical, to tragic, to surrealist. Some stories follow classic linear narrative structures, while others deviate from one’s initial expectation. Many stories deal with the question of literary construction itself, with a strong focus on the interrogation of reality.
This book makes the point that translated works of fiction allow for a far richer literary landscape. Ironic and funny, Ahmed al-Malik’s “The Tank” describes how much a man’s life has improved since he bought a tank which sits in front of his home. (People have started paying back their debts.) In contrast, Bushra al-Fadil’s work “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away” is darkly humorous and disorienting. Rania Mamoun’s story “The Passing” is a beautifully written story of a woman anticipating her father’s death. For those of us who, like me, are new to Khartoum’s short story scene, this collection offers a compelling introduction.
Both of the editors of The Book of Khartoum are also translators with academic backgrounds. Shmookler, a translator and academic at Columbia University, has worked as a translator and refugee rights advocate. Cormack has worked for Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and is currently a PhD student in Edinburgh, where he studies Arabic literature.
Between working gigs, Cormack likes to hang around in bookstores and stalls hunting for interesting material. Recently, the London Review of Books published a wonderful piece by Cormack on discovering a signed copy of Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite. Cormack and I chatted on the phone, where our conversation covered the editorial process and the responsibilities of translation, and dipped into the stories themselves.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about your publishers, Comma Press, and how you first started compiling this collection?
Raphael Cormack: It started when I was doing Phd research in Egypt, and decided that I wanted to go to Sudan. I did a research trip there, went to the National Archives and to the national library in the University of Khartoum. Nothing turned up in that respect, but I met a lot of interesting people. There’s a lot going on in terms of literature. I mentioned this to a few people, and Sarah Irving (who translated a story in the collection) put me in touch with Comma Press. They were interested in doing something on Sudan. They’d previously published a good book on Darfur, Jebel Marra, written by Michelle Green.
They were interested in Sudanese short story writers. And I’d been corresponding with Max [Shmookler] about Sudanese literature more generally, so we decided to do this together.
Rumpus: And what brought you to Khartoum?
Cormack: Khartoum is actually the reason I started studying Arabic. I visited my sister there in 2008, and I hadn’t been to an Arab country before. Then I started learning Arabic in university. I was trying to find an interesting language, and I didn’t know much about Arabic literature at the time.
Rumpus: Can we talk about what kind of considerations went into choosing these stories? Did you read stories first in Arabic or send translators out to select pieces?
Cormack: The compiling process was really fun. Actually, it was the best bit of the whole thing. We read the work of around forty authors. Max and I divided them up. The first time we went through a couple together to get our tastes down and then we divided them up like, “Okay, you read this, I’ll read that. Are there any good stories in there…?”
Rumpus: Okay, so it was divided up by author, not individual stories?
Cormack: Yeah. That ended up being both good and bad… It is the Book of Khartoum, specifically not called (for example) “a collection of Sudanese short stories.” So the stories need to be, at least nominally, set in Khartoum. This is good for the wider piece but it meant that there were a lot of stories I really liked that we couldn’t actually use. It made it easier, however, to narrow down the kind of stories that we could put in. Another parameter was that they had to be literary short stories. For a while, we were considering folk tales or something like that… but that was not part of the brief. It definitely would have been interesting to include them. But it is so difficult to define what a short story is once you really get down to it—especially in a Sudanese context.
Rumpus: I thought about that specifically in relation to Mamoun Eltlib’s short story “The Passage.” I mean, that could be called a poem depending on what your parameters were.
Cormack: Exactly. That’s also why I wanted to put it in there. Something that could be a short story but is also really poetic. Test the boundaries, that’s what I say. I mean, it sounds cheesy, but it’s true, right?
Rumpus: Okay, so you divided up the stories, and then you read all these stories in Arabic?
Cormack: Yes, we read them in Arabic, partly because that’s the language we work in. They are all in Arabic. Theoretically, we could have done one written in Amharic, something written by an Ethiopian immigrant for example, but we didn’t have access to that. There was also the question of whether or not we should include South Sudanese authors. And we do have one South Sudanese author in there. I personally didn’t want to say, “Well, I know your country has just split, but in my mind it’s all the same.” South Sudanese don’t necessarily want to be part of Sudan. So the parameters were not necessarily Sudanese authors, but people writing in Arabic about Khartoum.
Rumpus: How did you compile that initial list of forty-something authors? Was it people you knew of living in Khartoum or people that were suggested to you?
Cormack: Yes, it was authors we knew of. We also asked a lot of people for help. Najlaa Osman Al-Toum and Mahfouz Bushra helped us, as well as Xavier Luffin. There are a lot pieces of published online. For example, Al-Rakoba was a good resource. I actually think the guy who runs it has been arrested. [Ed note: You can read about that here.] There’s a website called Sudan for All that we used. I also just went to Khartoum and bought all the short story collections I could find. And I went to the libraries and bookstores in Cairo as well.
Rumpus: Why were you in Cairo looking for stories?
Cormack: Some Sudanese writers are published there. For example, Ali al-Makk is a Sudanese great whose collection was published in Cairo. Oh, and there was also a really nice book-related event I went to in Khartoum, called Mafroosh.
Rumpus: I have heard about that. That’s something which Mamoun Eltlib is involved with, right? It that basically a used book sale?
Cormack: Yes, it is like a book fair in a square in central Khartoum. People can come and sort of lay out their books. It was really busy when I went; there was a Sudanese women’s magazine being launched. Mafroosh was actually a fun place to find out what kinds of books people were reading, and to see what was popular. It was interesting to see what sellers thought people would buy. A lot of the books are semi-banned, but not really banned, you know? In terms of demographic, it was mostly young people, and very much of all genders. It was really happening and going on.
Rumpus: Did you consider the order of the stories? To what extent was the order significant to you and Max?
Cormack: Our publisher, Comma, was involved with that. I do really like the order of the book. I think that Isa al-Hilu’s “A Boy Playing with Dolls” is a good example story that sort of describes what we’re trying to do with the collection. Our goals are encapsulated in that story. That story is all about literary construction, and in what respects artistic production or literary production can represent the real world. I found this to be a theme in lots of Sudanese short stories that we read, and not just the ones that we put in. This comes out, I hope, in the book itself. It’s difficult to represent anything literarily and I think what we try to do is to ask that question, and give some examples of people trying to work through that.
Rumpus: In terms of the translations themselves, all the stories were basically in Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) right? Were any stories in Ammiya (colloquial Arabic)?
Cormack: Yes, all the stories were basically Fusha, but a number of them had speech in Ammiya. For example, Rania Mamoun’s and Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin’s stories. Generally, there are different levels of Fusha. The one that I translated (Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin’s “The Butcher’s Daughter) was pretty simple Fusha, whereas something like Mamoun Eltlib would be in high poetic form. Bushra al-Fadil’s story is experimental and perhaps what you could call highly wrought.
Rumpus: In translation, each word choice can make a difference in terms of style or tone. I was wondering how you feel like translating Arabic is different then translating other languages, maybe in terms of stories having both Modern Standard and colloquial?
Cormack: If it came to a choice between what the translator wanted and what we as editors wanted, we left it to the translator. Each story is also an attempt to represent the translator’s story, rather than having an overarching style. I mean, I don’t know how to translate the difference between Fusha and Ammiya, or think that it’s really possible. Maybe make speech slightly more like speech?
Rumpus: You mean for an English reader to read it and understand, okay, now they’re speaking colloquial language.
Cormack: Yeah. But I know, for example, that Max took a lot of care in his story. That’s the Bushra al-Fadil one. He really tried to make it experimental in English.
Rumpus: Interesting, I think that definitely comes across.
Cormack: Yeah, I think it’s a very experimental story in Arabic, in terms of the language and so he tried to represent that, which is, I think, a very noble aim.
Rumpus: While reading this book, I was thinking about how translators sometimes act as curators for an audience that doesn’t have access to the wider literature of the original language. There aren’t many Arabic books from Sudan translated into English, so you’re creating a representation of Khartoum literature in this collection. And people who don’t read Arabic can’t just go and read a bunch of other (untranslated) stories and assess your work. Were you conscious of that sort of responsibility, or how that might be problematic?
Cormack: Actually, that is something that I thought about a lot. You can’t possibly capture writing on Khartoum in ten short stories, right? My kind of line is that the poem that we put at the beginning, “Four Scenes from a City” by Ali al-Makk, is important in answering that question. There is a scene in the poem where he’s basically like, come and take a piece of my city. He writes that if you put a key in the door to the city, then it will break. And then you’ll have to come back and get another key. The reason I wanted to have that particular poem in the book is because it feels representative. It’s not possible to have a key to one city. In addition, Max and I are not from Khartoum, and nor are we Sudanese. That is also another difficulty. I mean, this book would have probably been very different if it was written by anyone else, and it would be different edited by someone from Khartoum, or someone not from Khartoum. As for the question, is this a neocolonial project? I mean, I really hope not. But we wouldn’t want people not to engage with other cultures. I guess it is not something this book is going to answer, but it’s something I do think about a lot.
Rumpus: Ok so I also wanted to ask you about the Elixir generation and Mamoun Eltlib. He’s the representation of that group in the book, right?
Cormack: Yes, he is meant to represent a much larger group of writers that are, in a way, more involved in poetry than short stories. They are testing the written form. We called them the Elixir generation, because they all used to publish in this magazine called Elixir. Now they publish mostly on this website called Al-baeed, which is really good.
My interpretation is that they are kind of reclaiming literary Arabic. The themes themselves are a little hard to access and the writing style is difficult as well. Thematically, they are often unworldly, or supernatural, but not something like haunted houses, more metaphysical.
Rumpus: One story included by Arthur Gabriel Yak, “It’s Not Important, You’re From There,” focuses on an individual seeking official refugee status. Like Mamoun Eltlib sort of stands for members of what you call the Elixir generation, I was wondering if that story is representative of a series of stories on that theme?
Cormack: In a way, yeah. It’s interesting partially because it’s the story of a refugee, but it’s difficult to capture the refugee experience in writing.
Rumpus: You get that feeling of uncertainty when you read it. I also found Bushra al-Fadil’s story “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away” really interesting in terms of narrative structure.
Cormack: That story is a real facet of modern Sudanese literature. I was talking to someone in Sudan, going through the stories we were putting in the book. This was the story where he was excited. He said, “Finally, there will be a translation of ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away!'” He seemed pretty excited. My way to think through it is that the author’s trying to represent someone’s inner thoughts, someone who seems to interact with the world in a way that is different from everyone else. At the beginning, he’s talking about how he’s walking through a crowd. It’s depersonalized; he’s knocking into people and it’s fragmentary. My interpretation was that he’s knocking into all of these people and apologizing, but the way he conceives of it, is as if it is something happening external to him. That’s why it’s interesting as well that there’s a picture of the girl in the story. The story is really engaged with how you can represent the world in literature. For example, here is how you can represent the inner thoughts of a man and his experience of the world, literarily.
Rumpus: Are there some writing resources online related to Arabic literature in translation that you used during this project or would recommend?
Cormack: Well, there’s Banipal, a magazine based in London. Their latest issue is on Sudanese literature. They actually included an author that we really liked in that issue, Abd Al-Ghani Karamallah, but we couldn’t include because the stories were not set in Khartoum. And you know about Arablit.
Rumpus: Yeah, it’s amazing. Ok so, rumor has it that this is the first book of short stories about Khartoum.
Cormack: Well, to be called “first” of anything is rubbish. There has been one anthology of Sudanese short stories translated into English, and it was translated and circulated for free by the Sudanese government in the 1970s. It’s sort of impossible to find.
Usually Sudan gets left out of the Arab world in terms of collections, and left out of African anthologies as well. I do think this has been the first book that’s just short stories. The caveat that it’s about Khartoum, not just Sudanese writers, stories written in Arabic and translated into English. And I do think a book about Khartoum should include South Sudanese writers, because South Sudanese writers shouldn’t be written out of the history of Khartoum. But these writers should not be called Sudanese if they don’t want to be.
Rumpus: I noticed that a lot of the stories are almost what could be called short, short stories. Is that because a lot of them were coming from a poetic, shorter tradition?
Cormack: I definitely noticed it as well. We printed off the book, and you get it and think, “Oh wow, it’s pretty thin.” But I do think that also reflects what Sudanese short stories are like, and how they come out of a specific type of poetic tradition.