The new literary front: public diplomacy and the cultural politics of reading Arabic fiction in translation.
New Formations (73) pp. 56–77.
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The novel Girls of Riyadh (Banat Al-Riyadh) by Rajaa Alsanea, published in English by Penguin in 2007, provides a valuable prism through which to examine an array of geo-political forces shaping the movement of literary texts between Anglophone and Arabic-speaking reading publics. The investigation seeks to contribute to the developing feminist scholarship on reading texts by and about Muslim women. However, rather than critique the substance of the text itself, the essay explores a wider range of questions posed by the subject matter, style, translation and marketing of this book. Contextualising the novel requires a discussion of how technology is mediating the social lives of young people across the Arabic-speaking world. The difficulty of analysing the rapidly changing new media environment is noted, and this is linked to new initiatives to target youth audiences sponsored by US and UK governments. By placing the publication of this book in the context of the 2008 London Book Fair, in which Arabic literature was the market focus, the essay uses the close involvement of the British Council to consider the mechanisms of public diplomacy, and in particular, the role of reading as a tool for intercultural exchange. Public diplomacy is discussed as a response to changing relationships between inter-national and transnational publics, particularly since 2001, arguing that this is the context for understanding both the convergence of the publishing industry with media and policy makers, and the creation of new marketing platforms, often publicly funded, to promote reading as a social good. The essay asks how we are to read modern Arabic fiction in translation, since it is virtually impossible to approach it outside these tentacles of geo-political power.
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