(The next in our series of Interfictions Zero essays is now available in the Projects section of our site: Sofia Samatar’s “Interstitial International? Ibrahim al-Koni and the Question of Genre“. Samatar is a PhD student in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies 20th-century Arabic literature with a focus on Egypt and Sudan. Her poetry is forthcoming in Stone Telling and Bull Spec, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, will be released by Small Beer Press in 2012. Here’s an excerpt to get you started, with illustration by the inimitable M. W. Kaluta.
The pivotal moment of Ibrahim al-Koni’s 1990 novel Nazīf al-ḥajar, translated as The Bleeding of the Stone, is a scene in which the isolated shepherd Asouf undergoes a life-and-death struggle with a waddan, a nearly extinct wild sheep. Asouf begins by hunting this mysterious beast and then, after hanging from a ledge over a gorge for more than a day, is rescued by the very creature he tried to destroy. In that moment, he recognizes the waddan as his dead father. As he makes his way back through the desert, bruised by the battle and tortured with thirst, he enters a liminal space: “There’s another life, between life and death. A third state neither void nor existence. He was in that state now, crawling along the wadi like a snake, his eyes blinded” (64).
The evocation of a “third state” hints at the novel’s preoccupation with the bridging of the ordinary and the extraordinary, which becomes explicit when Asouf, in order to escape conscription into the Italian army, actually turns into a waddan (73). This miraculous transformation, together with other fantastic elements in the novel, such as gazelles that make covenants with human beings and the horrific cannibal, Cain son of Adam, suggest that it might be useful to read The Bleeding of the Stone as an interstitial text. As far as I know, this has not yet been tried, but the novel has certainly been described as an example of magical realism – in fact, if someone in a group of people who study Arabic literature says “magical realism,” someone else is certain to say “Ibrahim al-Koni.” Magical realism’s strong association with postcolonial writing makes it the obvious choice to describe a work from a former colonial state that resists the conventions of the realistic novel, and such has been the case with al-Koni. Is there room, then, to discuss al-Koni’s works as interstitial? If magical realism and interstitial arts both mix fantasy with conventional reality, if they both encourage revolt against the traditional constraints of genre, and if writers like Angela Carter can be placed in both categories, then why do we need both terms? More importantly, by embracing the concept of the interstitial, do we risk damaging the position of magical realism, through which, especially since the 1982 Nobel Prize award of the grand old man of the genre, Gabriel García Márquez, so many works from around the world have been read, critiqued and taught? In these reflections, The Bleeding of the Stone, the award-winning novel by the prolific al-Koni and the first of his works to be translated into English, will provide not merely a passive testing ground for these theories, but an active model of how one might begin to theorize the interstitial in an international context.
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