Egyptian "girls' writing" and the politics of translation

By Nancy Linthicum
Submitted to Session P4808 (Gender and Mobility in Arab Women's Writings, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In the 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s, a hotly contested debate arose on Egypt’s Cairo-centered literary scene over kitabat al-banat or “girls’ writing,” a derogatory and dismissive term used to lump together uncritically literature written by young women such as Miral al-Tahawy, Nora Amin, May Telmissany, and Nagla ‘Alam. Dismissive terms like this and kitabat al-jasad (writing the body), the latter of which was directed at established and emerging women writers alike, appeared in a flurry of articles, interviews, op-ed pieces, organized discussions, and cultural salons, and colored interpretations of women writers and their works generally. One of the most common and influential, though also unsubstantiated, critiques was that women’s texts enjoyed increased mobility across cultures and were more readily translated than their male counterparts’, due to the cultural politics of Western publishers. Women writers were accused of exploiting their sex and producing overly personal, sensationalistic, and stylistically weak texts that allowed them to achieve an unfair amount of attention both domestically and abroad, especially through translation into Western languages. Award-winning Bedouin, Egyptian novelist and short story writer al-Tahawy, who has since relocated from Cairo to the US, and her works frequently were at the center of such debates, particularly as she gained international recognition and became one of the few living Egyptian writers to have all of her published Arabic novels translated into English.

Focusing primarily on al-Tahawy and drawing on archival research I conducted on Egypt’s most influential and widely circulating cultural newspaper, Akhbar al-Adab, as well as relevant articles published in other local literary journals and the work of Egyptian literary scholars such as Hoda Elsadda and Samia Mehrez, this paper examines the multifaceted debate over kitabat al-banat among Egyptian cultural actors during this period. I pay particular attention to how and why the issue of translation and accusations of increased mobility shaped the debate and affected the reception of al-Tahawy and her texts locally. In addition to considering discussions that took women authors and their writings as their subject, I also examine how al-Tahawy and her peers participated actively in such debates and sought to reshape this emerging discourse in Egyptian literary criticism.