Bushra al-Fadil, at 65, is reportedly the oldest writer to be shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He has gone on to win the prize, making him the second Sudanese writer to take home the award in its 18th year. Bushra holds a PhD in Russian language and literature and also writes in Arabic. In this interview which we had via email, we talked a bit about the translation of his winning story – The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away – from Arabic to English, and what style means to him.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for and winning the Caine Prize, Bushra. You’re the oldest on the shortlist and though it’s the publisher who applies to the prize, I’d like to think that the writer is usually in the know. What do you think of literary prizes?
To begin with, the publisher told me about his participating in the contest in mid-May. Only after then did I find out that my short story had been short listed. I didn’t apply for the prize but the publisher did in January. I repeat I didn’t know about it before mid-May. Literary prizes are good especially for young writers, however I was pleased that my story won because this will open a new pass for my work to a wider readership in English through translation as my fiction had been trapped for a long time to our native readers who read in Arabic.
Talking about translation, would you say the English version of ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ is exactly as you’ve written? Or do you feel that there are elements of the story lost in translation? How do you generally feel about translations? Of your work, especially.
The translation is good. However, the title in Arabic reads ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Sparrows Flew Away’. I told the translator about that. There are, of course, minor elements lost in translations. But generally, I’m satisfied with the translation. Thanks to Max Shmookler and his assistant, the Sudanese poet Najlaa at-Tom.
Great. At the end of the story, there are notes to explain some foreign concepts/terms. But I couldn’t help noticing this wasn’t done for all the Arabic words. Like zamjara zamjara. First, why was it necessary to explain those concepts even though the work itself is a translation? Also, why are some other words left out? How did you tell which to explain or did the translator use his discretion?
I guess you have to ask the translator about this. Zamjara is a verb in Arabic, not a sound. It means roared or growled.
And the birds, are they symbolic? There were many references to the ‘girl’s birds’ in the story. What do they stand for?
The coloured sparrows mean joy and happiness for me. I derived that from my childhood in a Sudanese village where I lived. We caught sparrows of different colours that made our days.
So then if the girl’s birds flew away, it means she was unhappy? It is difficult to say exactly what the story is about. At the beginning, the narrator appeared smitten by the girl’s beauty, praising her looks in lines that read like a Shakespearen sonnet. And at some point, he seemed anguished. For me, it felt like there was something lacking and I kept looking for it till it ended. What were you trying to achieve with the story?
I’m not much of a critic and I hope the readers will find by themselves what the theme is. I think what the chair of judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes said about the end of the narrative will provide some understanding to the readers, and for me too. You can look for what he said in the text of the winner announcement.
I read it and I remember one of the praises for your story was the peculiarity of its language and style. There aren’t many stories for adults that make use of illustration as you did with yours. In your description of the girl, you’d used words and then went on to show the reader a picture of what her face looked like. Why was it important to illustrate? Did you not think it would weaken or interrupt the flow of prose?
I didn’t think it’d weaken the prose. The illustration did not show a picture of her face. Rather, it was meant to lead the reader to ambiguity through abstraction. The drawing acts as a sentence. I needed to make a little pause there.
That’s fascinating. I also found the sentences appealing, luring a reader in, like a poem. Except for its structure, one could, on merely hearing the story being read, mistake it for poetry. Do you often write that way? Since you’re also a poet, how would you differentiate your language for poetry from that of prose? Do you think such a distinction is even necessary?
The influence of my writing poetry has been seen in this short story, I must confess.This was my second short story ever written. It was written in 1978 and published in February 1979. Now, with five collections and two novels, I distance myself from inserting poetic style into my narratives. Though some critics and readers in Sudan think that my old style with its combination of fiction and poetic language is actually better.
Talking about critics and readers in Sudan, how would you describe the growth of the Sudanese literature and its contribution to African literature?
I think we have great Sudanese writers and poets but most of them write in Arabic. Unions of writers and the Ministry of Culture should do their job. They should allow Sudanese poets and writers join their partners in our beloved continent rather than making contacts with the Arab world. We are Africans and we have to act accordingly. The Sudanese identity is one of our problems.