By Orlando Reade. December 5 2013.
A 743-page anthology of North African literature was published by the University of California last year. Ranging from documents made in sixth century Carthage to experimental prose published months after the 2011 uprisings, the Book of North African Literature is the fourth installment in the Poems for the Millenium, a series initiated in 1995 by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg with their huge Volume One: from Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude. This latest volume was edited by Joris and Habib Tengour, both poets, scholars and translators; it includes their translations from French and Arabic (alongside many other translators) and commentaries situating each text within the shifting centuries and centres of its experimental format. The Book reflects these poets’ life-work, writing and translating poetry which asks critical questions of identity and cartography; the attempt, here, to grasp the extent of this literature’s influence in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, undermines the cultural borders of this region. We spoke to Joris about the anthology, translating (or not-translating) North African literature before and after 2011.
A note on the text: the Book is emphatically not a linear or genealogical account of the literature of the region; it offers, instead, an account of the multiple beginnings, traditions and genealogies which emerge and reemerge in the literatures of the many languages of the region, and the region’s diasporas. In the first section, ‘A Book of Multiple Beginnings’ in which the first work presented is a prehistoric rock painting from the Tassili region of the southern Sahara (see the above photo, by Patrick Gruban).
The last entry is Omar Berrada’s Subtle Bonds of the Encounter, a bilingual poetic essay which samples texts by Alfred Jarry, bpNichol and Ibn Arabi, it is a fitting conclusion to the Book. Written in September 2011, it concludes “Fusion without confusion is only show of science.” The Book of North African Literature makes its most compelling arguments in its refusal to accept totalising representations or impose pseudo-scientific categories on its texts; instead, it witnesses poetry’s tendency to move across borders, creating speculative relations between diverse literatures.
from the interview:
The Book includes a series of origin myths, and presents a multiple relations between poet and language and land. Could you tell us about your friendship and collaboration with Habib, where and when you conceived the idea of the anthology?
Joris: Habib and I met in 1976 at the University of Constantine where I was teaching in the English Department and he in the Department of Sociology. We became friends when we discovered that we were both poets and had very similar interests. We stayed in touch over the years and would meet from time to time in Paris, where Habib moved in the 80s, when I’d come through that town.
I’d thought up the idea of the anthology even earlier — an ur-sense of the need for such a book came to me in 1966 when I met the Moroccan poet Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine in Paris and he introduced me to Maghrebi literature, insisting that it was in the Maghreb that the most interesting and revolutionary literature was happening. That’s when I began to read widely in that literature (as well as in Caribbean francophone literature, as both of these felt richer and wilder and more alive than French “metropolitan” poetry).
Then, in the 80s when Jerome Rothenberg and I imagined and developed the concept of thePoems for the Millennium anthologies, I immediately thought that this concept could be expanded and that I could finally put together this volume on the Maghreb. It seemed useful, in fact, necessary to bring in another person to collaborate on the project, and Habib was a natural, as one of the most accomplished and experimental poets of the Maghreb and as an excellent scholar in the various areas of Maghrebi cultures (as a trained anthropologist, he is, for example a specialist of oral literatures). A year and a half later we handed in the manuscript.
Pierre Joris (left) and Habib Tengour. Photo by Dan Wilcox.