Monday, December 1, 2014

YA fiction treads carefully into the Arab world

Young adults dominate the Arabic book market, but publishers are acutely sensitive to the slightest challenge to conservative etiquette
by: Marcia Lynx Qualey

The boom in young adult fiction has left the Arab publishing world playing catch-up, as authors try to compete with Twilight and The Hunger Games without breaking cultural taboos.

“There are too many taboos on what to write and how to write it,” says Taghreed Najjar, who has twice been shortlisted for the YA category of the new Etisalat prize for Arabic children’s literature. “It’s easier to sell books for younger children under the guise of educating them or strengthening their moral fibre. People who bought these kind of books were parents and teachers. But YA has to appeal to young adults to sell well, hence the dilemma.”

Young adult readers – a demographic majority across Arabic-speaking countries – may well be interested in strengthening their moral fibre. But they also seem to want more from their fiction. Ever since mass-market Arabic books started rolling off the presses, young adult readers have been a major force in determining what sells. The first YA bestsellers were paperback mysteries that began to appear at the end of the 19th century. Foundational Arab writers, such as Tawfiq al-Hakim and Sonallah Ibrahim, enjoyed translations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc. Naguib Mahfouz has said that his earliest literary influence was the potboilers of Hafiz Najib.

Today’s younger writers came of age reading Enyd Blyton’s Famous Five mysteries or Nabil Farouk’s fast-paced, if sometimes repetitive sci-fi Future Files tales, published in small, cheaply-produced paperbacks.

Paperback mysteries still sell, but in the last five years they have been overtaken by a new wave of well-produced Arabic YA. It hasn’t been easy, says Najjar. In her first young adult novel, Sitt al-Kol, which she intends to translate as Against the Tide, we follow the story of Yusra, a character based on a teen in Gaza who took over her father’s fishing boat in order to support the family.

The male-female relationships in Sitt al-Koll are all chaste, but that hasn’t stopped library and school buyers from complaining about the mild romance between Yusra and a boy called Salem, the supposed bad language (“sons of dogs”), and the father’s smoking. On the other hand, Najjar said, teen readers have asked for her to push harder, in particular to give more details about the relationship. “They were hoping I would marry them off at the end of the story.”

Lebanese author Fatima Sharafeddine, author of the pioneering Faten, has also kept her relationships very clean. This coming-of-age novel was also a politically-aware narrative, which followed a teen maid who was forced by her father to work for a family in Beirut. Sharafeddine said she was cautious in writing her first YA book, published in 2010. She changed “about 20%” of the book when she re-wrote it in English for publication by Groundwood Books as The Servant.

Young adult reading in Arabic varies by country. In the Emirates, YA reading has spiked, following the establishment of big book fairs and reading initiatives. But Aisha al-Kaabi, founder of the IQRAni publishing house, complains that young people have been driving the book market toward more “shallow romantic stories or books written by social-media celebrities”.

Bookstore owner and distributor Zeyna al-Jabri said she doubted whether the Etisalat Prize would make any difference. “Nobody has ever asked for a collection of prize winners. They see the sticker, it makes no difference.” And yet, “in the last few weeks, everyone who’s called has asked about YA.” In the six years that al-Jabri’s been selling children’s books, she said that she’s found no consistent bestsellers, no pattern for what sells. “It makes things impossible to predict.”

Hadil Ghoneim, whose YA novel A Year in Qenawas was on this year’s Etisalat shortlist, fears that YA authors’ deference to taboos may be holding their books back. “Maybe we tend to be on our best behaviour when we write for kids. And maybe they don’t appreciate that and don’t read much because of that.”

from: Guardian

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