Hanna Mina and the literature of resistance in Syria
Hanna Mina is one of the most famous Syrian authors of our time; well-known to Arabic readers, virtually unknown to the international reading community. He has published 40 novels, written countless editorials, numerous television scripts and contributed to the shaping of the realist form of fiction in the Arab world.
Surprisingly for a writer of his calibre, very few of Mina’s novels have been translated to English, even though his writing can be read in 14 other languages worldwide. Perhaps the best known of his novels is the semi-autobiographical Fragments of Memory which was published by Interlink Books in a revised translation.
I will be publishing a critical essay on Fragments of Memory in the next few months but I wanted to write this blog to express my frustrations at the poor attention to detail in this edition of the novel. Interlink Books are doing a great service to Arabic literature by translating novels that are considered of importance to shaping the development of fiction in the Arab world. The academic community in particular and the Anglophone reading community in general is grateful for their efforts. YET, one cannot but feel frustrated at the glaring mistakes in transcription, the misleading footnotes and the obvious editing oversights.
I have assigned this novel on one of the modules I teach at university and I find myself writing up an Addendum of errors and discursive footnotes to clarify crucial aspects of the narrative.
Poor editing is not my only quibble. The narrative is prefaced by an introductory essay. A thoughtful, relevant critical analysis of the text with useful background information on Mina’s career. Yet, the reading of Mina’s novel is framed within the parameters of Anglophone literature. WHY? Mina has read widely and he admires, like many of his contemporaries, the philosophical and experimental writing of French, Russian and Chinese authors. If there is a need to frame his work in an international context, then why choose English literature???
It’s time to revise the translation of Fragments of Memory; it’s time to revise Mina criticism and re-contextualise it. This is not a localised story of suffering and survival during Ottoman rule, then during the French Mandate. This is not only the story of the eradication of the silk weaving industry in Syria by the advent of synthetic silk from China. The struggles of the fellahin (translated literally as farmers but contextually as serfs) are reflective of the plight of labourers worldwide. Regardless of the word used to refer to them, these are the fellahin that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were worried about; these are the fellahin who work on Chinese rice paddies, required to render services to the feudal lord;
Hanna Mina’s novels belong to the discipline of World Literature and not to narrowly defined nationalist literatures. Like many of his contemporaries in developing countries, the barrier to reaching wider audiences is a language barrier and the distribution of good-quality translations is controlled by invisible forces guided by complicated political machines….
I’ll stop here before I get carried away into politics.