Today is publication day for Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books). Set in Palestine, this incredible book follows the story of female protagonist Qamar and won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2014. We asked Sonia and Marcia to tell us more…
Claire Storey: Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands is such a fabulous story. Could you tell us a bit about it? Where did the inspiration come from?
Sonia Nimr: The idea for the book stemmed from one question: What if all women had only boys? Then the image of an isolated village came to my mind, where women are neither respected nor appreciated.
CS: As you were writing, did you have a specific plan in mind about where the protagonist Qamar would go, or did the story emerge quite organically as you went along? Did you have to write many drafts?
SN: I did not have a complete plan; I wrote the section about that village, and I stopped writing for a while, because I wanted a girl hero who had a burning desire to travel. In the beginning, I had no idea where she was going, but as I went along and Qamar left Gaza, things began to develop almost on their own, and it felt like this was the natural course of events.
I did not have many drafts; somehow, after I wrote the first chapter about the village, things developed in my mind (as if they were being processed on their own) and then I put pen to paper.
So yes, I did write a few drafts but not so many.
CS: Qamar feels a huge desire to travel and see the world. Is this something you have experienced yourself?
SN: When I was little, I had always imagined myself as a great traveller, something like the Great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta. I used to point to places in the atlas and fantasize about going to each of these places. I think I have always wanted to be Qamar, or perhaps Qamar was the manifestation of my own desires.
I did some travelling myself, in India, Iran, the USA, Arab countries, and Europe, but I still have a dream to visit China, Japan, and Latin America. Sometimes, I fantasize about going on a caravan in the desert, or going along the old Silk Road.
MLQ: Absolutely, wanderlust is definitely part of the character’s appeal. Like Qamar, I was raised in a community with small and inward-facing ideas, and I too travelled inside books until other opportunities opened up. For better and worse, I never saw any adventures as magical and dreadful as Qamar’s—I’m afraid my longest journey was on the trans-Siberian railroad, from Khabarovsk to St. Petersburg. I think Qamar might have enjoyed such a trip.
CS: Qamar has many adventures throughout the book, some are fun and exciting yet there are also sections of profound loss and grief. Is there a stage in the story that you particularly enjoyed writing or translating, or conversely any section that you found especially difficult or painful to work on? Marcia, were there any particularly tricky passages to translate?
SN: In general, writing a new story for me should be fun. I enjoy developing it and moving the characters around and discovering things together. If I don’t enjoy writing, then I stop and give up on the whole project.
But the most two difficult sections to write were when I killed the pirate Alaa al-deen. Many of my young adult readers, especially young women, did not want him to die. The other painful part was when Qamar lost her daughter and was looking for her. As a mother myself, I felt that was the most painful section. I was actually crying when I wrote these two sections.
MLQ: Me too. Without too much spoiling, I was distraught at the disappearance of Qamar’s daughter, and the idea that she might have been enslaved was gut-wrenching. I think the challenge was less about particular passages and more about finding the book’s voice, so I could hum and sing and play along with it.
CS: I love the role of the Wondrous Journeys book within the story. The idea that this book brought together Qamar’s parents and then accompanies her throughout her life. While the book sometimes goes missing, it always finds her again. Has there been a specific book in your life that gives you this same feeling?
SN: There is no one specific book that gives me the same feeling. I develop a special connection with any book that I enjoy. But for Qamar’s story, I needed Wonderous Journeys to appear all throughout the narrative and thread the events together.
MLQ: There’s no book in my life that had the almost-magical properties of Wondrous Journeys. But I do have a few folktale collections that I treasured as a child, passed to my children, and continue to read and treasure as an adult, in particular Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, which I have in George Martin’s translation.
CS: Wondrous Journeys won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2014 and was included on the IBBY Honours List the same year. How important have these recognitions been in widening the reading audience for the book? With only a small number of translations from Arabic for young people, have the awards helped in finding an English language publisher? Marcia, how did you get involved in this project?
SN: Winning the Etisalat and other awards helped in many ways to widen the reading audience in the Arab world. Also, it helped with recognition of me as a writer. Awards raise curiosity and debates about the book, and they bring attention as well as recognition.
I think that the publicity from the award caught a publisher’s attention so that it was translated into Spanish and Catalan.
But my thanks go to Marcia who decided to translate it into English and her efforts to find a publisher.
MLQ: I think having a credible book prize is very important, because there are so few mechanisms for discovery with Arabic children’s literature. That said, Hadi Badi just re-launched their website, and there is also the new website al-Nqsh. But when the prize launched, I found it tremendously useful as a parent, a great place to start in finding good books.
I would say that the prize has not yet helped as much with translations as it could. I would really love to see a booklet produced each year, with excerpted translations and summaries from the shortlisted books, which would be available at the Sharjah International Book Fair—and at Bologna, Frankfurt, London, Guadalajara.
I was lucky to be able to interview Sonia after her Thunderbird was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize, and after that maybe I screwed up the courage to ask whether I might pitch her books to English-language publishers. Also, I felt Sonia gave me permission to love books for young readers even though I am, technically, a grown-up.
CS: I really enjoyed being transported through different countries, full of wonder, riding atop camels or elephants in a reality so completely different to my own here in the UK. With the current pandemic situation where travel is far more difficult than before and with young people potentially experiencing similar feelings of loss and grief, do you think this story is particularly pertinent to this generation of young people?
SN: Riding camels or elephants is also a different reality for me in Palestine in this day and age. But I think young adults everywhere love adventure—they have fertile imaginations and use them to travel the world. People always enjoy a good story, and they are fascinated by different cultures.
With this pandemic, books allow them to go places and live adventures through words in the safety of their homes—I also wanted to give them the magic of the Middle East but without the stereotyping.
I noticed that the for young adults in the UK, there are two images of the Middle East, either the very religious Muslims (women with hijab, etc), or the mysterious “Thousand and One Arabian Nights” kind. This will give them a different type, a strong woman with a sense of adventure who did things on her own and succeeded (in the world of men) because she is highly intelligent and an avid reader.
MLQ: I first read the book in 2015 and translated a draft in 2017, which feels like it was about 1001 years ago.
When the editor started to work on my translation, in spring 2020, he sent a letter of appreciation, saying this was just the sort of delight he needed in these times. And, as I re-read it during lockdown, I felt absolutely the same. Covid pushes us to live in such small spaces; this novel allows us to expand outward.
Are either of you working on anything exciting that you can tell us about?
SN: Yes, I just finished writing a trilogy for young adults. It is a fantasy adventure about a girl who had to save the world by going back in time. Marcia is translating it.
MLQ: So! I’m nearly to the end of a draft of the first book in thetrilogy, and it is an absolutely BRILLIANT middle-grade time-travel fantasy adventure set in the cities of Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Jericho of our times, as well as Jerusalem five hundred years ago. In it, a young Palestinian orphan, Noor, must save the world, with the help of a djinn (in the form of a cat), Sabeeka, and her lookalike from 500 years ago, Andaleeb. It is beautifully written, exciting, fresh, and plus: How could you not root for thirteen-year-old Noor, who loses so very much and keeps on fighting? Thanks for fighting for us, Noor! May we build a world in which we deserve you!