Summer Summaries

From the July/August 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Although most beach bags are filled with best-selling books these days, a heightened awareness of life and current events overseas might be fueling interest in the unusual number of high-profile books by international authors—from Iraq, certainly, but also from Africa, Poland, Norway, and many other foreign countries. The world is shrinking, and many are looking to literature more than politics to make sense of it.

Poet and novelist Sinan Antoon left his native Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, and currently teaches at New York University. His first novel, I'Jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights, June), translated by Antoon and Rebecca Johnson, takes the form of an obscure manuscript written by a young man in prison that is found in General Security headquarters in central Baghdad. In less than a hundred pages, Antoon provides a moving portrait of life in Saddam's Iraq. When asked in a 2005 interview if he categorizes himself as an exile or a refugee, Antoon replied, "Categories…are ill-suited for encompassing the complexities of our world. They are akin to lines on shores that are incessantly erased by the ebb and flow of reality."

The Sirens of Baghdad (Nan A. Talese, May), translated from the French by John Cullen, is the final installment of Yasmina Khadra's trilogy of novels about Islamic fundamentalism. The previous two, The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack, were best-sellers despite their dark and disturbing scenes of violence and war. Khadra, a female pseudonym for the former Algerian Army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul—who revealed his identity in 2001 after he quit the army and went into exile in France—is the author of six books published in English, but the trilogy is best known to readers in the United States. Janet Maslin, reviewing the book in the New York Times, wrote that the author's "ear for Iraqi despair, fury, and violation is keen," but that the brutal reality of the subject matter Khadra fictionalizes can overshadow the art.

More than 230,000 copies of Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf Press, June) by Norwegian author Per Petterson were sold worldwide before the novel, translated by Anne Born, was even released in the United States. When Amy Tan read it while traveling in the U.K., she immediately offered to write a blurb ("I finished with an exhalation of awe"); when Esther Ellen, codirector of the PEN World Voices Festival, finished it, she immediately booked Petterson for a high-profile festival event with Marilynne Robinson in late April. Out Stealing Horses, the story of a sixty-seven-year-old man who, in the seclusion of a cabin in eastern Norway, recounts the events of a fateful summer that altered his life and the life of a boyhood friend, won the $135,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Andrzej Stasiuk, the author of Nine (Harcourt, May), translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, lives in the Carpathian Mountains. He deserted from the Polish army under Communism and was subsequently sent to prison, where he began his writing career. Two years ago he won the NIKE Award, Poland's most prestigious literary prize. Nine, a novel about a young businessman on the run from loan sharks, portrays a generation of Poles in Warsaw following the collapse of Communism. It is the third of Stasiuk's thirteen books to be translated into English, and the first to be published in the United States.

The Feminist Press calls its Women Writing Africa series of anthologies a "project of cultural reconstruction," and one has to admire the ambition and sheer scope of it. Begun well over fifteen years ago, the aim of the anthologies is to collect oral and written narratives as well as historical and literary texts from African women of all regions of the continent. The first book, subtitled The Southern Region, was published in 2003 after a decade's worth of research. The second, West Africa and Sahel, was published in 2005. The third installment, Women Writing Africa: The Eastern Region (Feminist Press, July), edited by Amandina Lihamba, Fulata L. Moyo, M. M. Mulokozi, Naomi L. Shitemi, and Said Yahya-Othman, collects more than a hundred texts dating back to 1711. It offers fiction, poetry, journalism, oral histories, and speeches from five countries—Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia—that were translated from more than thirty languages.