Interview Youssef Rakha Author

bookblast interview author Youssef Rakha

The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars by Youssef Rakha translated by Paul Starkey was awarded the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am the only child of a disillusioned communist and a woman who struggled against incredible odds to go to university. I speak English with a slight accent and Arabic like a native Egyptian. I can think of at least three separate people I’ve been since I went to university in Hull, returning to Cairo once I graduated. All three worked in journalism and wrote, and the last two took pictures as well. I’m interested in the meaning of people’s words and actions, individually and in groups, in my part of the world: how the disorder and duplicity of human behaviour can resolve into something meaningful and also presumably beautiful. I’m interested in the way language can reflect and alter reality. I have a French-speaking three-year-old daughter I’m utterly besotted with. I’ve been urged to stop smoking cigarettes, which I do voraciously, and I’m planning on it but I haven’t yet.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
At a certain point I thought I was a prophet, a messenger of God. I must’ve fantasized about being a doctor and an architect and a spy, but all I consciously remember is wanting to be a writer.

What books have had a lasting impact on you?
Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club was the earliest book that truly changed me. More recently the discovery of Sargon Boulus was a major event in my inner life. I believe the Quran, the Book of Genesis, Jabarti’s history, Ibn Arabi’s Epistles and The Thousand and One Nights have all always been present in some form, and then there are all kinds of influences and interactions outside the Arabic canon. But it’s pointless trying to make a list of everything, so I’ll just cite four disparate 20th-century books of fiction that seem to be lodged into my sense of being: Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and, perhaps the most important of all, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

Why do you write?
To get back at the very many people who cross me, to see discernable patterns in the otherwise undifferentiated sludge of life and to bear testimony to having been conscious.

Your advice to new writers just starting out?
To not worry too much about material achievement until they have accomplished something major. To not have preconceptions about what works for readers or critics. To do their own thing with as much abandon as possible. To not be afraid.

As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m most proud of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal. I’m most embarrassed by love poems which, though perhaps not really all that bad, are somewhat self-indulgent and not as funny as they might be.

What is your biggest failure?
My first marriage, maybe. Or my inability to maintain contact with people who meant a lot to me. My writing hasn’t always sold too well or won enough prizes but I don’t think of this as failure so much as part of the general inscrutability of the literary world – what remains of the literary world in a primarily audiovisual age completely saturated with discursive trash, I should say. My failures have nothing to do with writing as far as I’m concerned.

Your views on success?
That’s a huge topic, isn’t it. I think it’s a terribly unfortunate fact of our times that the only possible success is commercial success, and that tends to be governed by a narrow set of factors, one of which is chance and none of which is literary merit. Much as it’s important to worry about the reader, I feel writers should prioritize their texts against the odds. They should worry about what they have it in them to achieve on the page (or the computer screen), and the way in which that responds to other writing and the real world as opposed to media projections of reality.

What are you working on at the moment?
My first novel in English, The Sacred Game Texts. A sci-fi thriller-cum-history of Egypt since 1956.

Your views on book publishing and translation?
The other day I was thinking that at no point in the history of publishing was profit as much of a criterion as it is now. I think that all over the world publishing is far less adventurous and exciting than it once was, simply because it depends solely on sales and sales are not forthcoming where interesting writing is concerned. That goes doubly for translation, obviously, especially from a language like Arabic. So, no. Not enough, not good enough. And not much of a way out as far as I can see.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life?
Word processing and the Internet are tremendous tools that make life a lot easier and make otherwise impossibly time-consuming things a breeze. I can pretend to be a luddite and wax nostalgic about pen, paper and dusty library volumes if you want me to. The truth is I use all I can in the way of technology. And in some ways that has made the process far more efficient. I don’t think it’s changed anything.

Your views on social media?
Potentially a fantastic opportunity for expression and exchange. In reality a very confusing flood of mostly fatuous subjectivity, some of it doubling as identity politics, some a mere extension of the global, power-wielding media. It’s like all other contemporary manifestations of democracy: overcrowded, superficial, mercenary and at bottom profoundly undemocratic – paradoxically not because of external restrictions on it but because it is indiscriminately open to everyone.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Absolutely. They’re easier to steal, too.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Oh, too many possibilities here. I suppose Athens around the time of Plato. To establish my own philosophical school.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I think together Nasr Abu Zaid, Abdelfattah Kilito, Salman Rushdie, Amin Maalouf and Rafik Schami should make for fascinating conversation.

Which characters in history do you like the most?
Cleopatra VII, Sultan Abdulmecid I, Khedive Ismail.
Also: Socrates, Galileo, Voltaire, Nietzsche.

Which characters in history do you dislike the most?
Ferdinand II-Isabella I, Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Nasser.

Your idea of happiness?
Night by the sea with erotic overtones, wine and laughter.

Your greatest unhappiness?

Your bedside reading?
Edgar Alan Poe, as often as not.

Your greatest achievement?
To have created a sustainable life situation in which I can go on writing.

Your favourite motto?
“Instead of waiting, there is writing,” Roberto Bolaño.

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