Jana Elhassan speaking about The Ninety-Ninth Floor's English publication
An independent American publishing house has published an English version of Jana Elhassan’s The Ninety-Ninth Floor, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2015.
Elhassan’s novel, which was translated by Michelle Hartman, has received a number of admiring reviews following publication on October 15th. The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Elhassan’s third novel and the first of her works to be translated from the Arabic into English.
The Ninety-Ninth Floor follows the struggles and triumphs of Maj’d, a successful video-game designer living in Manhattan, having survived the devastating 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp. In New York he falls in love with Hilda, a dancer, whose wealthy family from Mount Lebanon thrived on the power of the Christian right wing during the Lebanese civil war - who were directly linked to the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.
Elhassan’s novel is a love story that asks questions about the ability of passion to overcome hatred and difference. It is as relevant to today as ever and speaks to situations in Lebanon, Palestine and the Middle East as a whole, and also conflict zones throughout the world.
Congratulations on the English publication of The Ninety-Ninth Floor. It's the first time a novel of yours has been translated. How have you found the process of translation and reading your words in another language?
Thanks. The translation was excellent and here I want to thank Michelle Hartman who worked so hard and was keen for us to work together so I would be happy with the result. Personally, when I read the novel in English, I find it funny that I feel as if I am reading a novel written by someone else. I have a similar feeling when I read my work in general but I am happy when I read it.
How have readers and critics received it?
It is too early to form a clear idea about reactions to the novel. There have been some positive responses, but it was only published a month ago so it's early to say whether it will have an impact on foreign readers or readers in English. Unfortunately, I am feeling quite depressed at the moment about the state of literature in the world. I don't know where it is going to end up, twenty years from now. Literature is ultimately a refined example of many kinds of human expression. It gives voice to people's fears and concerns, their lives, weariness, hopes and joys. But doubts press on me about this basic humanity in general, never mind the expression of it!
You recently moved to the US where some of the novel's events take place. Would you change anything in the novel, if you wrote it now?
Of course, the places when viewed from within are different to how we imagine them or read about them. But in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, I was not writing about the US and immersing myself in the society of this country. I wasn't writing about America from the inside. I wrote about it as it related to the character of Majd and as a place of outsiders. And New York is still like that to me. Perhaps if I had been in America when I wrote the novel, I would have written a completely different book about something else. But if I wouldn't change anything in it now, even if I could, because every novel or text is connected to a particular framework of time and place. If we write the same text half an hour later, it might emerge in a different form.
What are you reading now?
Unfortunately, it is hard to get hold of Arabic books here, so I am reading novels in English. Recently I read the six novels on the British Man Booker shortlist. They were varied and a pleasure to read.
Has your writing or view of writing changed since the publication of The Ninety-Ninth Floor in English?
Writing is always in a process of development but this isn't linked to the publication of The Ninety-Ninth Floor in English. It is to do with the writer and his relationship with life in general, his accumulating experiences. Although writing is important to me, it is also hard, and especially difficult is finding sufficient time for it. As well as being a writer, I am a working woman providing for my family and the daily grind sometimes robs me of the time and space which I need for writing. It is unfortunate that, except in rare cases, writers do not earn enough through writing, so we are forced to persevere and struggle on all fronts in order to write.
As an Arab writer in the US, do you feel pressures - internal or external - to write about certain subjects? How do you deal with these pressures?
When the writer loses his freedom, he loses everything. Writing for me is a private space I don't allow anyone to encroach on or attack. Or rather, I try by all means to keep it private and not be influenced by any pressures that may exist.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that "I would like to write a book which is partly autobiographical but I am afraid of the idea". Do you still have this desire and have you got any closer to writing it?
I am afraid of turning myself into fictional material since my life is not just about me, but about the people surrounding me, so I don't have the right to write about them without their permission, so this desire is still just that. But I am working on an imaginary life story which isn't personally connected to me.
Are you working on a new literary project?
Yes, as I said before, I am working on a life story which is fictional, since it is the story of a woman I imagined. She doesn't actually exist. I was writing something else when the current idea took hold of me, so I shelved the first project until I could finish the current one. I prefer to give any literary work the necessary time and energy, so I can give it my best when writing it, so it may take extra time, especially given that many changes have happened in my life recently.
(This interview can be read in Arabic here)
Read some of the brilliant reviews below:
“Anger, passion, and loss dominate the pages of this gripping, emotional novel as the protagonists face the bloody shadows of their pasts” – Publishers Weekly
“Whether it’s discussing love or war, this arresting meditation on loss is visceral and honest” – Library Journal
“[The Ninety-Ninth Floor] is an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium” – Asymptote Journal
“An intimate and intense novel that shines a light on both the overt and hidden tensions of the Middle East” – Kirkus Reviews