With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation by Amal Al-Jubouri, translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi
Publisher: Alice James Books
Why This Book Should Win: We’ve never had a winner from Iraq, or even from Arabic, and it’s about time.
Today’s post is from Jennifer Kronovet.
The following are some poem titles from Iraqi poet Amal Al-Junouri’s fantastic book of poetry: “My Neighbor Before the Occupation,” “My Neighbor After the Occupation,” “Bones Before the Occupation,” “Bones After the Occupation,” “Photographs Before the Occupation,” “Photographs After the Occupation.” These titles suggest that a stark dichotomy will be illuminated, that time and war work in such a way that there is a clear before and a clear after, that the Iraq before American and British occupation is a set place distinct from a solid present. Yet, through their spoken clarity, their lyrical beauty and complexity, and their specific observational longing, the poems in this book eradicate the myth of such dichotomies. Instead, this place, Iraq, is a place of perspective, of shifting, complicated change known to us through a way of seeing that cuts through the simple. In “My Mouth Before the Occupation,” Al-Junouri writes that her mouth “tried to say no, but couldn’t / I was afraid // Instead, my tongue led me to this curse: / protests that silenced me // then seeped from me, eternal.” Then
My Mouth After the Occupation:
shouts No! Fearless,
though my tongue fears arrest
I’m terrified of losing truth
and look—it’s already gone
Exiled with God’s tongues
She doesn’t say no before the occupation; she does after—but still there’s fear and loss, there’s a way in which words still leave one behind. In Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, we see how the political writes itself on everything that is personal—one’s speech and body, one’s sense of freedom and of love. Rebecca Gayle Howell’s translation, with Husam Qaisi, is stunning in how it creates a powerful, contemporary voice speaking to us directly with warmth and suffering, and yet also carries over the poems’ connection to Arabic literary traditions. The language of the poems marry present and past, which is a feat of translatorly skill and innovation.