Marina Warner is an internationally renowned novelist, critic, and cultural historian who is host to a massive upcoming Arabic literature workshop in Oxford and the chair of judges for the 2015 Man Booker International:
Warner’s award-winning works of popular scholarship have touched on classical Arabic literature, as in Scheherazade’s Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights (2013), co-edited with Philip F. Kennedy, and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (2011), for which she won a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Truman Capote Award, and a Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Warner is also the recipient of the 2015 Holberg Prize, which is awarded to “outstanding researchers in the arts and humanities, social science, law, or theology,” and is set to be presented in June.
In a Skype interview, she spoke about the LAL’s upcoming event at All Souls College at the University of Oxford on April 25 2015 , “A Corpus Not a Canon: A Workshop on the Library of Arabic Literature,” as well as the forthcoming LAL collection Consorts of the Caliphs, the process and project of being a judge for the Man Booker International, and more.
ArabLit: How did you get to this point, of being part of the Library of Arabic Literature?
Marina Warner: Philip Kennedy helped me, when I was asked to give a lecture at a memorial for Edward Said at Columbia in 2006. I wanted to explore the name of the West-East Divan Orchestra, because Edward, who was the great scourge of “Orientalism,” had chosen Goethe’s lyric cycle of poems, which could be seen as quite Orientalist by his standards, as the title for his great orchestra.
Basically, because I can’t read Arabic, I asked Philip for help with the sources that Goethe was using. Of course, Goethe couldn’t read them either. So I went into the history of the eighteenth century translation of ghazals and so forth, and I was very much guided by Philip to the right references and articles. And then I wrote an essay that eventually turned into a chapter of Stranger Magic. I’ve since done a tremendous amount of work on encounters, translations, and cross-fertilization between the Middle East and Europe, and I’m very committed to this line of inquiry. I have evolved an interest in how texts exist as imaginary zones — mythemes, if you like — taking different forms according to the language in which they are incarnated, the place and time.
I realized that many of the books that I consider absolutely fundamental to my knowledge of literature are texts that I can’t read in the original. For example, the Odyssey. Although I can puzzle out Greek, there’s no way I can read it transparently, to enjoy it. So I’ve basically been reading the Odyssey in multiple versions across time. And the same can be said about the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I can read Latin, but not fluently as I read French or Italian. I like and need translations.
And then I have a political concern with trying to raise awareness. One of the maxims of the West-East Divan Orchestra is “knowledge is the beginning.” And I think that the only thing someone like myself, who’s a reader and a writer, can do in the present dangerous and very distressing situation of the world’s conflicts, is to try and read across cultures, in order to understand a bit more.
AL: And now you’re helping to stage this workshop on April 25.
MW: Yes, and then we’re doing this massive workshop, and I hope it’s going to come off without incident.
It’s very much larger than we expect. I think All Souls is rather reeling at this mass descent of Orientalists.
AL: How many people are you expecting?
MW: We’ve got around 40 coming who are invited from all different parts of the world. And then we’ve had quite a lot of interest in Oxford itself, and we’ve now got a waiting list. Fire regulations restrict the capacity to 100.
AL: That’s unfortunate.
MW: Well, it isn’t really, because I do want there to be a conversation — not a grandstanding event, but a discussion between people who are working on similar things. A hundred is already a bit large for that, but many of them know each other already so that will help keep the conversations lively.
AL: This will be the first LAL event in England?
MW: It is actually rather surprising that LAL hasn’t had a proper showcase in Britain till now. This will be the first time the list is discussed in England. And I do think that shows the kind of ignorance that I’ve been worried about. So my role is to try and help get the texts out there, in all their variety, their heterodoxy, and their richness. So people don’t continue having this terribly monolithic view: on the one hand Scheherazade, and on the other, Taliban.
AL: This is why you’re calling it a workshop and not, for instance, a symposium, because you want to foster discussion of projects?
MW: Yes, exactly.
Also, we haven’t asked for prepared papers, so it’s also meant to be fairly informal. We want it to seed ideas.
AL: What are you hoping will come out of it?
MW: I’d like the barrier that segregates Arabic literature and its traditions from the rest of literature to dissolve in the way that it’s dissolved between European literature and Latin American literature, for example. The status of Arabic literature in the general context of studying literature is very marginal. That’s partly because the texts haven’t been accessible.
For that reason, the Library is very, very valuable.
AL: And there will be additional events with the invited authors and academics, after the workshop?
MW: I’m doing a series of seminars, called “Orienting Fiction,” following weekly after the workshop, at a tangent to it, as it is concerned with living literature and motifs. I want to explore how the different modes of fictional narration in Europe and in Arabic are learning from and intertwining with one another. So within the novel, a very large category, Arabic writers are bringing traditional methods of their own.
For example, Hoda Barakat, who is on our Man Booker International list, patterns in a symbolic way. The Tiller of Waters is constructed around imagery of fabrics, which provide the cadences of the story. It’s a very poetic structure and an interwoven structure — it is a fabric in itself.
Ibrahim Al-Koni, who’s also coming to the seminars, and is also on the International Man Booker list, is drawing on Tuareg folklore, customs, mysticism — a whole world of experience and imagination We’re enriching the corpus of fiction by acknowledging the innovations coming from these writers, which are, in many important ways, their own responses to their cultural traditions.
AL: There is a panel discussing Consorts of the Caliphs, which isn’t available yet, to which you wrote the foreword. How did you come to that book?
MW: I think it has a feminist interest, and there is a feminist strand to my work since the Seventies. I certainly found it very interesting in those terms. The fact that the women’s trace on history was fairly light, and had it not been for these quite fragmentary details that Ibn al-Sai’s brought out, that he’s recorded, some of that trace would be lost. There’s a certain poetic side to that.
I’m thinking about doing something inspired by the book.
AL: Can you talk about it?
MW: I’m going to NYU next autumn, to the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and I’m hoping to create a ballet with composer Joanna MacGregor and choreographer Kim Brandstrup.
They may not feel immediately involved in the subject, so I have to put it to them, but I’m quite interested in how many of these women were involved in creating water irrigation systems and supplies, and had the people’s access to water in their minds. So I was thinking of trying to do something watery in a ballet — a strong metaphorical theme in the history of the form — think of Swan Lake!
It seemed to me that this was a way I could shift Orientalism — that instead of having houris, we could have water-engineers; a different kind of enchantment.
AL: So there’s a definite feminist interest in Consorts of the Caliphs. What about other aspects that would interest people from across other disciplines?
MW: One of the aspects of it that I thought could be discussed is the concept of slavery, which is very complicated. One can see in the Consorts of the Caliphs, as one can also see in the Arabian Nights, that the word is a very elastic one and its English resonance narrow and very unsatisfactory. The editors and translators of Consorts have decided to use ‘slave’ for the favorites of the Caliphs, and they gave this decision a great deal of thought. That is one of the things that we can discuss at All Souls.
The fact that slavery was practiced and then used metaphorically in different ways, I think, deserves more discussion.
AL: In your foreword, you talk about the Consorts of the Caliphs and the Nights. How do you see the relationship between those two texts?
MW: I think I’m right in saying that some of the traces of earliest culture and politics in the Nights are pretty coeval with the Consorts of the Caliphs. The vision of Baghdad in the Nights reflects that period. There’s a way in which that peak of Abbasid civilization colors the stories in the Nights, and we glimpse it in some of the stories.
AL: And do you think this collection will have mainstream interest?
MW: These volumes represent a necessary first level: accessible publications for further dissemination. This is the kind of raw material that writers will use, and teachers, and filmmakers and other communications media. People who do research will use these books, but readers won’t so much take them on the tube to work unless they’re really professionally interested. They don’t have quite that feel. But the paperbacks, I think, will have that feel.
But I don’t think that’s against the Library’s editions. The scholarship establishes the texts. It’s a vital and necessary stage.
AL: One of the sessions at the April 25 workshop talks about cultural diplomacy. I wondered how you saw the LAL books in the context of cultural diplomacy.
MW: Crucial. One hopes that they will contribute a more nuanced and subtle and more informed picture of the very, very complicated and very different phases and interests of the whole culture that has flourished in Arabic. It’s vastly varied and a vast area of the world.
I think the Sufi poet ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah will be a revelation. A woman teacher with a mystical vision. Her work has very striking resonance with other mystics, for example the thirteenth-century Flemish mystic Hadewijch, who wrote a form of ecstatic poetry which is really quite close to ‘A’ishah’s. So there is some very interesting comparative thinking to be done.
AL: Will there be more LAL events in Britain after this?
MW: I hope there will be. There’s a lot of interest in the people who are coming. Abdelfattah Kilito is going to do the first seminar in my series, and then he’s going to SOAS in London, and they’re thrilled that he’s coming. And al-Koni’s also going to go to SOAS. I think once one takes a step, others rise to the occasion.
AL: Did your familiarity with the Nights, and with LAL, and Arabic literature, at all inform your readings for the International Booker?
MW: Very much so, yes. I was asked to be the chair, and the chair’s job is to choose the judges. I chose them — and I was very lucky that they agreed to do it — because they have an interest beyond the Anglo-American metropoles.
It wasn’t that I wanted to impose. But I think the way communications are now happening in the world, and the way languages are existing in these forms of transmigration, that we need to consider the map of literature from multiple perspectives rather than from the commercial poles where the publishing powerhouses are.
And it’s very significant that actually most of our writers on the list, and many of the writers whom we read for the prize, are published by small publishers. It’s the small presses that are reading widely and finding interesting voices. The voices of our time.
One of the writers whom we read, who unfortunately didn’t quite make the list, is Bensalem Himmich. And Himmich is a very strong example of writing about the past in a very detailed, rich way — as Gamal al-Ghitani does, in Zayni Barakat, a novel I also admire profoundly. These are exemplary historical writings, that bring the past into living being, but at the same time they’re actually palimpsests through which one sees the present time.
It isn’t a question of changing the vantage point to another vantage point, it’s actually accepting a model of the world that is very internet-like, in the sense that it’s flat and networked, rather than radiating from New York or London.
AL: Will the judges meet again in person before May 19?
MW: We meet on May 17 for the final decision.
AL: You’re re-reading before then?
MW: We’re reading some more, yes. Reading again.
AL: It must have been overwhelming. I’ve spoken with many of the judges of the “Arabic Booker” (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), and all of them have eye tics by the end.
MW: I must say, I found it hugely enjoyable. The Arabic fiction prize is submitted by publishers?
MW: That’s a drawback for judges, because it creates an enormous list, not of your own choosing. We were very privileged, because we came, all of us, with a pool of books we had read — in our work and in our lives — and we’re all of a certain age with different areas of knowledge. So there’s a lot of reading behind us. Basically I asked the judges: Why don’t you recommend writers who you think could win and who the rest of us haven’t heard of? And I suppose we started, therefore, with a pool of five writers each, whom we each didn’t know, who we each thought could win. There were lots and lots more who were famous, who we all knew about and we’d all read and we discussed them as well, of course.
AL: It’s very different from a publisher-submitted prize.
MW: And those only look at a single year. This is a prize for a lifetime’s body of work — though not a lifetime achievement award — so it goes right back.
It’s a very pleasant prize to read for. It was a huge amount of work, and it’s also very taxing on one’s house. My house is now impossible. I haven’t been able to have a friend to a meal. It requires rebuilding Babel each time I try and sit down at my kitchen table.
AL: Are there other Arab writers who were close to the shortlist?
MW: The chair always writes an article about the prize, and I want to pay tribute to Radwa Ashour, because she was a strong candidate for the shortlist if she hadn’t died. I can’t guarantee that she would’ve been on, but she was definitely under consideration.
AL: Is there a part of the April 25 workshop that you’re most looking forward to?
MW: I suppose I am looking forward to the cultural diplomacy panel because that’s the one I can engage with without being at sea. And it is a very live issue. Obviously, there are all kinds of critical considerations — criticisms of the Emirates, for example — and questions about the limits of collaborations, and so forth. All these questions are very, very crucial.
This interview first appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature website, through which you can pre-order a copy of the Consorts of the Caliphs.
Note: Since this interview, I have received an invitation to the April 25 workshop and look forward to participating and writing about the discussions.