Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Yasser Bahjatt, an Arabic speculative fiction writer who can be found on twitter.
Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us. How did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I have always enjoyed the mechanics of history and fascinated by how a lot of our history was a result of very small events that could have easily happened another way.
'Yaqteenya: the Old World' was the first AH novel ever written in Arabic. Why do you think the genre had not previously taken off among that community and what was the reaction to it coming out?
I think there is a general culture of thinking that thinking of what could have happened is not good virtue and that one must not think of such things and just accept destiny as it happened. The book was very well received and has a strong following.
Yaqteenya is about an Islamic community in the Americas, cut off from the Old World. What inspired that idea?
The Islamic nation in Alandalus is a very big part of our common culture and its fall has a huge impact on our common psychic in the Islamic world. So I wanted to explore how the world would have looked like had their culture survived after the fall of Granada, and the Americas seemed to be the best place to play it out.
You translated 'Yaqteenya' into English yourself and you regularly translate other works between Arabic and English. What's the key to a good translation?
I think there are two important factors to a good translation: First, understanding the cultures of both languages well enough to be able to grasp most of the nuances in both cultures relates to the translated material. Second, have good writing skills in the language you are translating to. I am not sure I always score high on those points, but I try my best,
In terms of that translation, presumably your Arabic audience has a better understanding of the Arabic history you're altering than an English speaking audience. Did you have to change anything to explain Arab history to Westerners?
I did not change much, I think I did add a few paragraphs sprinkled across the translation to try and explain some of the nuances of the story to the English reader but in a way the did not feel enforced or like an info dump.
You've regularly appeared as a panelist at various conventions and have organised various TED talks. What do you find most rewarding and challenging about that sort of public speaking?
Both public speaking and writing are tools to plant your thoughts and ideas into other people’s minds. The main difference in my opinion is the way you get the realize that those seeds have been planted. In love that in public speaking you can almost see the seed being planted and growing as you look into the souls of your audience through their eyes.
You started your own Arab science fiction group and publishing company, called Yatakhayaloon to fill a gap in the market. How has that been received within the Arabic community?
Our first novel HWJN was an immediate hit, the week it was release was the same week Dan Brown’s Arabic translation of Inferno was release, we hit the #1 selling book in Arabic that week while Inferno was #2. And it has been a challenge ever since to maintain that level of quality that meets our audience expectations.
You co-authored the Fantasy/sci-fi book HWJN with Ibraheem Abbas, what do you think makes a good writing team and what are the advantages of writing with someone else?
Officially I co-authored the English edition of HWJN. I personally think I translated it, but throughout the process of translation I kept working with Ibraheem to find the proper ways to fill the cultural gaps that the English reader needed to be able to understand the story and do it in a way that matched the voice and tone of Ibraheem’s original story. So I was surprised when Ibraheem handed me the cover for the English edition (as he is in charge of creative aspects of our publishing house), to find that he titled me as a co-author instead of a translator, in his words “You are as much an author of this English story as I am of the Arabic one”. We are however working together on another novel right now, and we are having a blast. I think to write with someone else you must be in many ways aligned on the final message you want to deliver, yet very open to taking things to directions that you did not expect. And of course there has to be a tremendous amount of trust.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am working on further stories set in the world of Yaqteenya, and a novel with Ibraheem titled FULL.