William Hutchins and Amir Tag Elsir

William Hutchins
photo: Nimah Ismail Nawwab

A famous Sudanese writer meets an annoyingly odd man at the signing for his latest novel; later, having been dragged to a lecture he doesn’t particularly care to attend, that writer sneaks out for a smoke break, only to encounter the same man—and to discover that he has the same, rather uncommon, name as a character in his book. That’s the set-up for Telepathy, the new novel from the Sudanese novelist Amir Tag Elsir, which has been translated for English-language readers by William Hutchins, who’s perhaps best known to American audiences for his translation of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. And if you think you know where that set-up might be headed, you might want to think again… although, since it’s a rather short novel, it won’t take you very long to find out for yourself!

The contemporary Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir has a gift for writing genuinely amusing and humane novels about topics like Ebola and ethnic tension in Sudan. Not gallows humor, his novels are full of antic, frolicsome wit. With carefully observed and meticulously described observations of life in Port Sudan or Khartoum, he builds hard-to-refute cases for our generic silliness, which we should embrace to achieve our full potential as human beings.

When one of Tag Elsir’s novels was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic fiction for 2011, Samuel Shimon of Banipal, a magazine of modern Arab literature, asked me to translate an excerpt from it. That opportunity inspired me to translate the entire novel, which was published in 2012 as The Grub Hunter by Pearson Education Limited for a temporarily revived Heinemann African Writers Series, which had once published books by Tag Elsir’s late uncle, Tayeb Salih, a much admired Sudanese author. In The Grub Hunter, a police officer who once jailed subversive writers decides to write a novel himself after losing his job and a leg in a stakeout.

I also translated Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume for the ANTIBOOKCLUB of New York, and in March 2016 it was named to the Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist. French Perfume tells the story of a marginal slum’s self-appointed herald who reinvents himself when he learns a Frenchwoman may come to reside in his community as part of some international project. He falls madly in love with her internet profile, which is relayed to him by a local teenager, who has learned how to surf the web.

Sufism, Islamic mysticism, has provided literary inspiration for many Arab authors who themselves may not have been Sufi practitioners. Sudan has a rich Sufi heritage that is evident both in the name Tag Elsir and in the novel French Perfume, which can be read as an updated version of the romance between an ancient Arab poet, Majnun, who lost his mind but gained gnosis through his thwarted love for beautiful Layla. Ali Jarjar, the transformed busybody, re-enacts Majnun’s tragedy as he waits and waits for the Frenchwoman to arrive.


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17 April 2016 | in translation |

Amelia Martens & the Year of the Snake

Amelia Martens
photo: Emily Margaret Okerson

Each of the poems in Amelia Martens’s The Spoons in the Grass are There to Dig a Moat is a surreal scene, just a paragraph in length. (Well, okay, some of them are a few paragraphs, but let’s not quibble). A poem like “We Will Be Long Gone” unfolds with the logic of the answers to a child’s persistent bedtime questions, while others, like “Collection” or “Tuesday,” place Jesus in the midst of unsettling but largely recognizable tableaux—in the case of the haunting “Newtown,” all too recognizable. In this guest essay, Martens reveals a key influence on the dream-like specificity of her vivid imagery.

As an extremely near-sighted person, I have a history of up close experiences with the visual. Literally. Without my glasses, no one has a face. As a kid I read at night without my glasses and the pages brushed my cheek. I have also found it necessary to visualize—what I’d like to have happen in a given situation, what might happen, how a machine (or IKEA bookshelf) is put together, how much of everything I own will fit into a U-Haul so that I can drive it from California to Indiana. I’m a nearly blind visual person. Perhaps this is the reason imagery is a vital concern. Words make pictures; the right words make readers not notice the picture being made; instead we are sucked into the feeling. The visual becomes visceral.

In my second semester of the IU MFA program, in our poetry workshop, Maura Stanton assigned several collections that we were to read. Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake, which had recently been published by Southern Illinois University Press with a glossy half tattoo/half black cover, had my attention immediately, as I had acquired a new tattoo just weeks before leaving the west coast. Visually, this was not a book of poems written by a dead white man. And I am a monkey. Okay. We were born in the year of the monkey. Monkey twins with parents who incorporated cosmology into our upbringing. All of this to say, Roripaugh’s book had me at the outset.

I read these poems as a newly minted poet; somehow being in a poetry program made me “official.” I read them as a woman who had just moved from the Pacific Ocean to the Midwest. I had never been as weird as I was when I arrived in Indiana. People talked about California as if I’d come from Mars. What’s it like there? Do you surf? In Roripaugh’s poems I found encouragement, for my strangeness. And delight in the line as an image splitting tool.


11 April 2016 | poets on poets |

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