Novelist China Miéville (King Rat, The City & the City, Railsea) was one of a dozen-odd authors who traveled for a week on a mini-bus with this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature at the end of May. Miéville read his work at events in Haifa and in Nablus; he also gave a short writing workshop in Birzeit.
Miéville’s was one of the most popular workshops, with a range of young Palestinian authors in attendance. As it didn’t conflict with the time of mine, I sat in on the discussion about writing the political, writing the fantastic.
Because my primary business has become serious Arabic literature, it has also largely become “non-genre” literature. But I fell in love with fantasy and science fiction as a young reader, and, for me, these genres have never lost their air of childish mischief. Books with strong elements of the fantastic, even very serious ones, usually feel like a subversive treat.
Yes, there are science fiction & fantasy novels in Arabic — Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia was a finalist for the 2012 SF&F Translation Awards; Noura Noman recently published Ajwan, billed as the first Arabic SF novel for young adults; and there is the 1,001 Nights — but, for contemporary readers, the genre is not well-developed. This has led to a persistent worrying about why more Arab authors don’t build on fantasy and sci-fi traditions that have long been a part of Arabic storytelling. Is a lack of SF because of a lack of science education and scientific thinking? Is it because SF&F seem too “foreign”? Is it because of (this one’s always a good space-filler) Islam?
Whatever the reasons, and they are likely multifold, the Birzeit workshop attendees evinced a strong interest in both fantasy and science fiction.
Miéville spoke as a partisan of the possibilities of serious fantasy and science fiction, but against a particular sort of allegory, noting that “the way in which the fantastic is often deemed to be political is by making a kind of allegory.” This view is problematic, he said, “because if you’re saying, ‘The way fantasy is politically interesting is to do this [allegory],’ then everything that doesn’t obviously do this isn’t interesting. And that’s absurd.”
There is, Miéville acknowledged, powerful writing in the allegorical tradition, particularly Gulliver’s Travels. But allegories like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, he said, don’t have the same power “because I don’t believe that Margaret Atwood believes this world. I think that she’s writing this book as a way of making a point about our world. … Whereas when I read Gulliver’s Travels, I think Swift believes all of these worlds, even though he’s also making points about our world.”
Miéville urged workshop participants to surrender to their own fantastic worlds. He noted that many would argue that, “If you’re simply surrendering to the fantasy, then it’s just…silly things in space. To which I say, ‘What’s wrong with silly things in space?’”
He added — incorrectly, I think — that the workshop attendees’ novels would automatically have a political gravity, as, “You guys are Palestinian; anything you write is going to be political.”
Miéville particularly noted the role of the fantastic in Emile Habibi’s Said the Pessoptimist and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and how these had provided an avenue to present what could not have been said in “realistic” fiction.
There does seem to be both an appetite for Arabic science fiction & fantasy and interesting possible directions for the genre. The Arab literary establishment, as a rule, doesn’t take genre fiction seriously — this makes it difficult for authors who want to straddle both worlds. But there have been wonderful uses of fantasy that don’t necessarily announce themselves as such — among them, Rabee Jaber’s fantastic fantastical The Mehlis Report, now out in translation from Kareem James Abu Zaid and New Directions.