The Freedom to Publish: An Interview with Rafik Schami

by Luke Neima

Rafik Schami was born in Syria in 1946 but fled to Germany in 1971, where he has been living in exile for the past 40 years. While in Germany he co-founded the literary groups Südwind and PoLiKunst to help popularize immigrant literature; he writes only in German, and his most recent novel, The Dark Side of Love, is translated by Anthea Bell. Schami has won numerous international awards and has been translated into 23 languages. He and Barbara Schwepke of Haus Publishing have recently founded Swallow Editions, an imprint dedicated to bringing Arabic literature to the West.

Where did the idea for Swallow Editions come from?

It stems from the fact that Arabic literature isn’t widely known or distributed here in the West. It was understood from the beginning that it’d have to be done without oil money – as soon as you have oil in the business, you have interests, which is exactly what we didn’t want. So the launch of the imprint has been privately funded.

We started just before the Arab Spring, as if we felt it in the air, as if the time was ripe. It started when I read new writing on the internet that I thought was so remarkable that it had to be published. No one knew it in the West, and they needed to. We wanted to attract more Arabic readers too, and to expose them to authors who would dare to tell it like it really was.

We’ve been working with previously unpublished manuscripts, because as soon as anything has been published in the Middle East there’s a danger of censorship. In Arabic countries the ruler tends to have a strong influence on publishing houses. Our first two novels, for example, were only published in Beirut. The rest of the Arabic countries refused them.

You’ve started some literary groups in Germany - is Swallow Editions an extension of those projects?

It’s a totally different starting point – in Germany there’s freedom to publish, but readers just weren’t interested. People needed to be won over. By founding these groups, Südwind and PoLiKunst, immigrant authors found a platform from which to launch themselves. The Germans reacted positively, and several went on to great success. The big difference in Germany is that they never were a colonizing culture on the scale of France or Britain – they didn’t have the same kind of experience in dealing with other cultures. For them it was new.

One of your recent novels is called The Honest Liar – does your experience with different cultures affect your concern with the relativity of truth in fiction?

The Honest Liar was written when the wall came down and the Eastern Bloc collapsed. What used to be truth became lies and what used to be lies became truth – heroes became villains and villains heroes. That made me aware of the relativity of these concepts.

The ability of literature to open eyes and create possibilities for the future is its central function. It cannot be a political programme, it cannot cause a revolution – that is what inexperienced authors think. At the moment, a lot of my friends are making the mistake of writing very quickly about the Arab Spring. They are preaching – I thinks this prose will turn out to be very flat. I have to take a step back, get some perspective, and in a couple years I might have an idea about what to write.

The Guardian called your latest book, The Dark Side of Love, the first great Syrian novel, and yet it was written in German, the language of the country you’ve lived in for the past 40 years.

I was very surprised that many English, American and French literary critics did not take this into account at all, and ignored it. I don’t write a word in Arabic – I write in German, like Kahlil Gibran in English, or Beckett in French. With these writers that’s mentioned immediately, but with me it’s never mentioned. Maybe they assume my mother is German. I’m a Germano-Syrian author. The fact that I’m writing in German extends into the structure of my work.

Do you mean the structure of your work as a whole, or on the syntactical level?

It’s not the skeleton, but the nerve system that’s affected, the capillaries and the blood pulsing through them. The skeleton isn’t what’s interesting, it’s the skin, the nails, the texture of it. And that all comes from a melding of the Arabic culture, which emphasize the oral tradition, with the German language and the European tradition.

How does the oral tradition affect your work?

I’m very close to the oral tradition. In Germany, I tell my stories live, to an audience. These aren’t readings, but recitations. They’re so popular that they make me independent of my publisher - after a hundred sessions, the whole book is there.

The oral tradition also keeps me in touch with the Arabic way of telling stories. It’s like the patterns in a carpet – the patterns come one after another, it’s flat. In the European tradition, which focuses on psychology, writers are creating sculptures. The Arabic tradition doesn’t focus on psychology. It’s the adventures of a hero that explains how they feel – there’s no inner monologue. That pattern-technique is something I try to reproduce my writing.

Do you think translation affects your work differently, because of your proximity to the oral tradition?

Yes. The big problem for translations is that they often take away that oral tradition. The result is prim and proper, but without the drive of the original. There’s a Palestinian author I know who is very powerful in the original, but was translated by seven people working together. The translation is like an official’s report. I can’t influence how English or Japanese readers read my works, but I can in Germany.

Your most recent novels were translated by Anthea Bell – how do you find her translations?

I like Anthea Bell. My experience being translated is that a translator who asks a lot of questions will produce a good work, while those who know everything already won’t. Anthea Bell asked so many questions, about so many details - I was very excited. Friends say my Italian translation isn’t so good but that the English is excellent.

I’ve been translated into 27 languages, and I’ve had a lot of different experiences. If we had enough money, I’d invite someone to retell my novel in the English oral tradition – to entirely recreate it in English. That’s what translation should aspire to. That’s what we’re trying to do with Swallow Editions.