Archive for the ‘NIght Counter Reviews and Press’ Category

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Gained in Translation (and how I lost the ‘dude’)

May 7, 2012

Interesting.  I wonder what this is about?  That was my initial reaction when I opened a package from my publisher the other day and saw Przepowiednia Szeherezady.  I was thinking that another writer must be as equally obsessed with Scheherazade as I am.  Perhaps she had read The Night Counter, and had liked it so much she had written a book length analysis of it.  Perhaps that was why my name was in big letters under the beautiful Nubian princess on the cover.  We can all be delusional for a few seconds.

The Nubian princess on the cover I immediately recognized was not me.  However, it took me awhile to figure out she was indeed my Scheherazade from The Night Counter.  This was in fact the Polish translation of The Night Counter, with one of the main characters literally photographed in a way I had never imagined her.

Being as The Night Counter’s characters are fiction, I had never seen a photograph of any of the characters in the book outside of my head.  Nor did I ever contemplate how hard or easy it would be for the characters to master life in Polish.  Now sometimes in the space they forever inhabit in me, I can imagine them whipping up some witty repartee in Polish.  At least I hope it’s witty and true to themselves.  But no one ever really knows when it comes to translation.  Indeed, how Dobromila Jankowska (the translator) heard them in English might be different than how I heard them, and therefore they might be slightly different people in Polish.  Just like real humans, characters become slightly different when they move to a different language, let alone a different country.  Even my English doesn’t sound the same here in Abu Dhabi as it does in the US.  There are words I don’t use often now—“dude” mercifully high among them—because they sound foreign in English here and maybe I speak louder and slower.

Humor, which is more based on culture and language, than drama is probably the hardest thing to understand in translation.  In Germany, The Night Counter family is apparently quite funny.  I only know this from sitting at readings in Germany in which I would read in English to relatively stoic responses –I could have been reading a new political manifesto for Europe.  But when the translator read the German version, the laughter told me they were not thinking of The Night Counter as a manifesto, at least not one they took seriously.

The Night Counter became Feigen in Detroit (Figs in Detroit) via translators Nadine Psuchel and Max Stradler.  My German editor at Auf Bau called Max a replicant because he can translate in several languages faster than anyone she’s met, run marathons and raise a son on his own.  Max did the first literal translation and Nadine went in and made the characters authentic in German.  At least that’s what everyone who has read the translation tells me:  They said Nadine was able to deliver fully dimensional characters who sounded like they’d always been speaking German suitable for their phobias and demographics.

When I met Nadine, we clicked instantly, bonded by the hours we had both spent pondering every word in the book, something that creates a natural intimacy, as probably no one else has ever had to be so close to what goes on in my head.  We also had similar sensibilities, key to good translation. Here is an exchange, unedited, between us when she was doing the final pass at the translation:

Nadine:  On page 84: “Yeah, we could call it the International Dateline,” he said. “Sometimes these ideas just come to me. The entrepreneur in me, I guess” (Zade talking about a new cooperative partnership in his match-making services). The pun with date doesn’t work in German so we thought of him proposing the name “Achse der Liebe” – “axis of love”. But of course this would have a more political undertone so what would you think of that version? (We could also leave the name in English. Date in the sense of rendez-vous is known in Germany, so the pun would be lost but the name itself would make sense, maybe with a slightly different wording in his next sentences).

Me:  I love axis of love. It would have been better in English, too.

Translation is complicated, but it also made me understand my own language more–and I got to understand my characters better in talking about them as German speakers.  But perhaps on the other hand its simple.  When I met my Norwegian publisher last year, I asked her why she had bought the book for this country with one of the highest per capita reading rates in the world.  “I loved the story,” she said.  “I could see it in Norwegian.”

That’s it really:  translation at its most noble is love of sharing stories and information. Some of the best things I’ve read in my life originated in languages I only know how to say “thank you” in.  If I have any doubts about how translation makes life better, I only have to look at the woman on the cover of Przepowiednia Szeherezady :  Scheherazade understood stories and the importance of them for survival.  That’s why she’s been in translation for centuries, some translations recognizable to how I know her, and some less so–and one day soon, she’ll find herself saying “dude” in someone’s interpretation of her.

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Muslims Wearing Things

November 3, 2010

I miss living in the US every day for many reasons, but among the things I don’t miss are the shallow debates on TV that pretty much follow the line of “Muslims:  Terrifying or just really scary?”–usually a heated debate book ended with some heart pounding intro and outro musak– like these are one of two  extreme positions that need to be taken about Islam’s billion followers.  It’s easy for me to tune it out when I’m not Stateside, so I’m glad I missed the whole Juan Williams debacle, and I’m not sure why he got fired when so many others have said way worse things and had it pass as “news.”   But I get a kick out of this blog’s response–and feel pretty privileged to be in the company of these fine dressed people.

http://muslimswearingthings.tumblr.com

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LAUNDRY DAY FOOD FROM THE NIGHT COUNTER: MAJADERA

July 9, 2010

In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather

Laundry Day Food

majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas.  But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite.  Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast, not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry.  Those were the reasons it was prized in the past.  Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so simple to make that you shouldn’t serve to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.  She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table.  It seems to be more standard in mezze today and expats order it by choice.  But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same if you can call it a recipe at all.  You can use bulgur wheat or the more common rice.  You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you cook it into a mush.  But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.

BASIC MAJEDERA

Two cups lentils
One cup rice
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover.  When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender.  Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much.  Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt).  If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized.  Spread the majdera on a platter and cover with the fried onions.  Serve with yogurt, pickles, and chopped tomato salad* on the side.  Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy, perhaps I might even say superior, substitute for tomato salad.

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The Sacremento Book Review & The Night Counter

September 12, 2009

http://sacramentobookreview.com/modern_literature/the-night-counter/

The Night Counter

Posted by Editor at 8 September, 2009, 9:25 am

night-counterBy Alia Yunis
Shaye Areheart Books, $23.00, 365 pages

When the immortal storyteller Scheherazade gives Fatima Abdullah 1,001 nights to tell the great stories of her life, Fatima begins to prepare for her death. Between getting her affairs in order, Fatima spends most of her 1,001 nights reminiscing about Deir Zeitoon, the home in Lebanon she left for America, and the home she longs to return to. She only spends her last eight nights reliving her life in America and her many disappointments.

The Night Counter is a multi-generational tale of an Arabic family adjusting into the American culture and the disappointment Fatima experiences when she realizes her children have assimilated and all but forgotten their Arabic heritage.

Alia Yunis’ debut novel is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly crafted. She provides not only Fatima’s perspective, but also the perspectives of Fatima’s children and grandchildren, and the individual struggles they each face as an Arab in a post 9/11 world. Familial relationships are perfectly captured and each character is real and relatable, making The Night Counter an engrossing read.

Reviewed by Jenifer Carter

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The Washington Post Review

August 15, 2009

It’s pretty cool to get reviewed by one of the book critics you respect the most.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/13/AR2009081303267.html

A SCHERHEZADE FOR OUR TIMES
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO 1,001 NIGHTS
By Carolyn See

Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009

Shaye Areheart. 365 pp. $24

Some people write about death, dying and tragedy as if they were death, dying and tragedy. Others — God bless them — just don’t carry the genes for drama or melodrama; they look at the world with all its flaws and suffering, and something about the situation strikes them funny.

First-time novelist Alia Yunis writes about the years after 9/11 and how that sorrowful event affected members of the ordinary, law-abiding Arab American community. She writes about wiretapping and FBI surveillance, as well as an old woman dying alone in West Hollywood, with no one to care for her but a grown grandchild, a hapless, unemployed actor. Yunis takes all this material and stirs it into an immigrant-ethnic cocktail laced with political oppression, but before shaking, she adds Scheherazade, the fabled storyteller who kept herself alive by distracting her tyrannical husband for a thousand and one nights.

Fatima Abdullah is 85 years old and close to death. She’s more than half blind, quite deaf and has trouble with arthritis, but her worst ailment is the systematic neglect of her many adult children. They call her every week or so but give her nothing except weather reports from where they live; they don’t want to tell her anything about themselves, and that’s probably wise. Fatima is not a very charming old lady. She’s repetitive; she gets things wrong, refuses to listen and obsesses on things her kids don’t care about: her mother’s old letters (even though she, Fatima, never learned to read), her wedding dress (although nobody seems to want it) and especially the old family home in Lebanon, which she hasn’t seen in 70 years. Which one of her children should she leave it to? (Her children, and the reader, know it would be a miracle if this house has survived the wars and bombing raids that have transpired through the years.)

Fatima is sure she is dying because for the last 991 days she has had an unlikely visitor to keep her company: Scheherazade. Strangely enough, she has been extracting stories out of Fatima instead of the other way around, but whatever way you slice it, there are only nine days left before death is scheduled to appear.

Scheherazade listens to Fatima fairly impatiently: Surely, she must have listened to thousands of tales of young women who came to America from their beloved old country only to find poverty, struggle, homesickness and disappointment. Fatima, while still a bewildered teenager, landed in Detroit, where her first husband worked in the car industry but died before their first child was born. His best friend, Ibrahim, dutifully asked her to become his wife. The rest of their children followed, each, of course, carrying tales to be told.

Some nights Scheherazade flies out on her carpet to see how things are going with the kids. There’s Laila, in her 50s now and still in Detroit, so fed up with the Muslim faith and the injustice of having to suffer breast cancer that she cooks up a mess of pork chops for the elders of the Mosque and passes it off as veal. Or Dina, a spoiled grandchild, who spends a summer at a refugee camp in Lebanon and realizes there’s more to life than cheerleading and makeup. Or Soraya, a successful psychic, who, 20-something years ago, visited a sperm bank so that she might have Amir, the gay grandson who’s taking care of Fatima right now in his West Hollywood bungalow. Or Randa, who lives in Houston, in dreadful fear that she and her husband will be recognized as being of Arab descent. Or Hala, the good girl who grew up to be a doctor but was imprudent enough to marry a Chinese man, thus incurring the wrath of both families. (And that match produced Brenda, a flaky high-school dropout whose hook-up with a black guy produced Decimal, who carries every kind of blood and every kind of allergy in her put-upon veins.)

Needless to say, with all their trials and distractions, none of these family members had anything remotely to do with the events of 9/11. But Amir, the gay guy and would-be actor who takes care of his grandmother, has been turned in to the FBI by a vengeful ex-lover, and the bungalow in West Hollywood is duly wiretapped and watched by a clutch of semi-delusional agents who are trapped in stories of their own devising. (One of them is a zealous woman named Sherri Hazad.) The agents investigate the daylights out of every member of the Abdullah family, but manage to misunderstand almost everything they see. (It doesn’t help that Amir keeps trying out for parts such as Jesus so that his costumes and long fake beard make him appear sinister, indeed.)

This is a plot-heavy book — I’ve left out several characters and events — and I can only say that when death comes, it does so in an unexpected way. But “The Night Counter” is also lighthearted, full of silly plays on words and comedic errors. In this easy-seeming way, the author aims, without being in any way preachy about it, to give us a short history of the Middle East and the Muslim faith in America — to say: Don’t be so quick to misunderstand us; we are, in so many of the ways detailed here, the same as you. She succeeds, very gracefully.

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The Night Counter A Best Bet in Dayton/The Mother Daughter Book Club in Santa Barbara

August 8, 2009

http://daytonmetrolibrary.blogspot.com/2009/08/night-counter.html

Chaucer's Santa Barbara

Chaucer's Santa Barbara

The Wright Brothers didn’t write so much as fly, but pretty cool for the book to get such a nice mention in their hometown.

Meanwhile, I loved reading at Chaucer’s (www.chaucersbooks.com) in Santa Barbara last night amidst Fiesta Night traffic, and one of the great moments for me was when a woman in attendance told me that her mother-daughter book club had chosen The Night Counter as its next read.  This mother lives in Santa Barbara, but the other mothers and daughters, including her own, live in other cities and connect for their discussions via Skype.  Pretty cool. As was my friend Janice inviting a friend who turned out to have gone to the same high school as me in Beirut, but hers was a different time, the 50s and 60s, when the American expat community was so large it had its own neighborhood.

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Updates: Book Soup and Christian Science Monitor And Entertainment Weekly

August 5, 2009

The Night Counter is still #2 Bestseller at Book Soup, thank you West Hollywood.  I should be blogging about San Francisco and Seattle, which have been awesome, but I’m waiting for photos.  Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, which reminded me of my students when they say to me, “A B+?  Couldn’t you make it an A- It sounds so much better.”   And here is an excerpted review in the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that I grew up reading as a kid because our neighbor in Minnesota, Mary Ellen Fairbanks, had a subscription and used to tell us all the time, “If you want some legitimate international news, this is the paper to get.”  The review came out on Sunday, a day I actually spent with her two daughters in Seattle, whom I had not see in years and years.

The Night Counter

In a contemporary twist on “1,001 Nights,” a Lebanese grandmother spends her nights telling tales about her Arab-American family.

By Marjorie Kehe August 1, 2009 edition

The Night Counter By Alia Yunis Shaye Areheart Books 384 pp., $24

Scheherazade was the lovely Persian queen who kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories so enthralling that her murderous monarch couldn’t bear to behead her. So he married her instead. Fatima Abdullah, however, has neither Scheherazade’s narrative flair nor her seductive looks.

Fatima is an elderly Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her favorite grandson, Amir. She moved to Detroit from Lebanon seven decades ago and has since had two husbands, 10 children, and 14 grandchildren. At this point, she’s ready to say goodbye to all of it.

Or almost ready, that is. First, she must find a wife for wannabe actor Amir (blithely overlooking his constant insistence that he’s gay) and then arrange for him to inherit her beloved mother’s house in Lebanon. In the meantime, as the successful conclusion of that task drags on, Fatima is content to stay alive for another 1,001 days, spending each night telling her stories to Scheherazade. (Scheherazade apparently, has become immortal, and now travels the globe – beautiful as ever – hearing stories from others.)

Such is the premise of The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s debut novel, the sweet, funny, meandering story of Fatima, her family, and the uneven process of their assimilation into life in America.

Not all of Fatima’s children, who now live scattered across the US, are entirely likable. In fact, most have disappointed her in one way or another. Her only living son, Bassam has spent much of his adult life on an alcoholic bender in Las Vegas, although the events of 9/11 have now shocked him into a promising sobriety. Several of her daughters have succeeded in pursuing what many would consider to be the American dream – but it’s not necessarily the course their mother would have chosen for them.

Fatima makes a grand protagonist – a somewhat befuddled yet strong, independent character who may have rejected much about the US, but sure loves American sports, particularly the Detroit Tigers. (“How could [the Tigers] get swept by the Twins,” she frets, “a team playing under a plastic bag on spongy cement?”) There is also a hilarious scene in which a special FBI agent trained in Arabic (assigned to watch over this “suspicious” Arab-American family with ties to both Lebanon and Detroit) tries to interview Fatima, who mistakes her for Scheherazade, offering her cooking tips and motherly laments which the FBI agent frantically parses for information on terrorist plots.

The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that’s what holds a family (much like a nation) together.

“Stories keep us entertained and enlightened,” she tells Fatima. “And if we don’t know the ending, all the better.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.