Since its founding in 1987, Interlink Books in Northampton, Mass., has been publishing literature in translation from the Middle East. “I’ve always believed that literature is a mirror to the soul. It tells you what history books hide,” says Michel Moushabeck, publisher and editor of Interlink, which also publishes nonfiction primers, cookbooks, and travel books. Because of the perspective its books provide, Interlink saw a big jump in sales after 9/11. Now in the wake of the current uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the 24-year-old press is once again seeing sizeable increases at Amazon and on its own InterlinkBooks.com Web site, as well as strong orders from libraries and independents, according to Moushabeck.
Interlink was the first American publisher to translate and publish leading Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, author of The Bleeding of the Stone, and the first to offer a Yemeni novel in English translation, Zayd Mutee Dammaj’s The Hostage; both translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley. Last fall it published Radwa Ashour’s autobiographical novel, Specters, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine. Set in Egypt and featuring a narrator also named “Radwa,” it anticipates recent events. “It has a description of a student revolt. When you read it,” says Moushabeck, “it’s as if you read a blog from a few weeks ago.” The novel received a Cairo International Book Fair prize.
Over the past year, Interlink’s bestselling fiction in translation has included two novels by Syrian author Rafik Schami: The Dark Side of Love and The Calligrapher’s Secret, both translated by Anthea Bell. In a starred review of the former, PW compared Schami’s description of Syria to Salmon Rushdie mythopoeic India of Midnight’s Children. Banned in Syria, both are international bestsellers translated into 21 languages. Schami lives in Germany, where each has sold over 750,000 copies.
In fact, much of the literature that Interlink publishes was banned in its home country, including Yusuf al-Qa’id’s first novel to be published in the U.S., War in the Land of Egypt, translated by Olive and Lorne Kenney and Christopher Tingle, about Egypt on the eve of the 1973 October war. Interlink also publishes Egyptian psychiatrist and writer Nawal El Saadawi, who was jailed in Egypt. Her novel The Novel, translated by Omnia Amin and Rick London, which was banned in the Arab world, is set in Egypt.
To capitalize on recent events, Interlink has e-mailed information about its Middle East list to booksellers. That’s on top of its monthly e-newsletter about its fiction and nonfiction on the Middle East, which has 25,000 e-subscribers. Another 75,000 people receive the newsletter by mail. Even so, book sales don’t always reflect the level of scrutiny the media have given to the Arab world over the past few weeks. In part that’s because many bookstores don’t know what to do with fiction in translation other than Steig Larsson. Moushabeck recommends moving them out of fiction entirely. “We’ve always said they will get lost in fiction,” he says. “Put them on the travel shelf.”