The Power of Words Issue

Hoda Barakat and Marilyn Booth on the Voices of the Lost 

'Does any writer know why they turn to writing?'

By Sharifah Alhinai

Award-winning author Hoda Barakat. Illustration by Alexandre Troin for Sekka.

Born in 1952, Hoda Barakat is a Lebanese novelist who has become one of the Arab world’s most accomplished authors. Writing in both Arabic and French, Barakat, who resides in France, has published a range of works including six novels and two plays. Her third novel, The Tiller of Waters, received the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2000, and her fifth, The Kingdom of This Earth, was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, which at the time was awarded in recognition of an author’s body of work. Four years later, Barakat was awarded the IPAF for her novel Barid al-Layl, making her the second female Arab author to receive the distinguished award.

‘How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day?’ writes one of Barid al-Layl’s characters in a letter. The 197-page novel is a heartbreaking story that centres on the lives of six strangers who were mainly forced to migrate from an unnamed geography because of war, which marks a departure from Barakat’s earlier novels, which have consistently revolved around civil war and its traumatic repercussions in Lebanon. Each of the characters confesses their innermost secrets by writing letters to their loved ones. Their raw letters, which reach other characters in the story but never their intended recipients, reveal the characters’ dark battles with their inner demons and their haunting, universal experiences with displacement, poverty and marginalisation. 

Barid al-Layl was translated from the Arabic by award-winning translator, author and Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the University of Oxford Marilyn Booth. Booth’s literary translations include Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, PhD, for which Alharthi and Booth famously received the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. The English translation of Barid al-Layl, which was published last year by One World Books under the title Voices of the Lost, marks the third time Barakat and Booth have collaborated together on a literary work. Booth previously translated The Tiller of Waters and Disciples of Passion.

I interviewed Barakat and Booth about their experiences working on a novel that was produced in the context of ongoing migrant crises, how this work differs from others they have worked on in the past and their views on the power of the written and translated word. This interview was edited for length. It contains spoilers about Voices of the Lost.

Why writing, Ms Barakat?

HB: Does any writer know why they turn to writing? Perhaps some writers do attempt to locate and name motives for their writing, justifying it in various ways. For example, they write to support a just cause or because they feel duty-bound to bring certain truths or facts to people’s attention. There are probably as many answers to this question as there are modes of writing, or the directions one’s writing can take and its aims.

Author, academic and award-winning translator Marilyn Booth. Illustration by Alexandre Troin for Sekka.

With regards to my own writing, I do not have a clear answer to this question. I cannot say exactly why I continue on in this difficult, complex and solitary activity, which does not in itself create connections to other people: in fact, it means working without the participation or encouragement of others. Perhaps what pushes me to write is a desire to delve more deeply into myself, or to find some connection with the outside world that allows me to understand it, or to interrogate it. Or, perhaps, to deal with the anxiety brought on by its painful contradictions. But writing, as I see it, is first and foremost an excavation of the self. At the very least, for me, it is about searching for whatever it is that might offer some sort of harmony amidst insurmountable discord. To put it another way, writing—like all arts—rearranges the uglinesses in our world and ‘recycles’ them to bring out facets of beauty or aesthetic wonder.

Dr Booth, why translation?

MB: Well, why not translation? I don’t think I need to speak to the importance of translation as a key human activity everywhere and in all eras of human existence. More personally, for me literary translation is an art, as well as a responsibility. I can’t really imagine not translating. I do confess that there is usually a moment somewhere in the process, nearly every time I translate a literary work, when I think ‘never again.’ But I can’t stay away from it.

Hoda Barakat’s answers were translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, PhD.

This feature article is part of The Power of Words Issue. To read this article in its entirety digitally click here to buy a digital copy of the issue.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.