Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

Without strong institutions to support the production, circulation, and preservation of literary texts in Sudan, the literary corpus remains relatively amorphous. Only a few major texts are promoted, reprinted, studied, and curated to the point that they reach canonical status–in the Sudanese literary critical world, the broader Arabic speaking world, or the arena of world literature in English translation. The absence of robust cultural centers, uncensored book markets, extensive libraries, and well-maintained archives is another impediment to the formation of a stable, accessible canon of national literature. I’m not convinced this, in and of itself, is bad; but it is certainly a notable structural difference from the current support that the English canon enjoys.

Economic challenges are aggravated by political circumstances, especially censorship. Inside Sudan, it is difficult to obtain the works of writers critical of the government. The novels of Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, for instance, are ironically much easier–even for Sudanese themselves–to obtain in Cairo than in Khartoum. Similarly, many historical works are much easier to find than contemporary fiction. For instance, the works of the contemporary writer John Oleao Okage are only held in a single library according to; while the oeuvres of major figures like the poet al-Tijani Yusuf al-Bashir and the poet-critic Hamza al-Malik Tambal are made accessible via government sanctioned reprints.

I often feel like every work of Sudanese literature—with the exception of Tayyib Salih—is “rare” in comparison to the ubiquitous availability of English literature, or even the relatively substantial collection of modern Egyptian literature. The historical marginalia is also less well preserved and less frequently available; and the Arabic scholarship that surrounds and protects literary works (call it a “critical cartilage” if you like) is relatively meager. This critical cartilage is what protects and preserves a literary tradition in the public imagination. Of course, there are other ways in which Sudanese society does preserve public memory, and much short fiction participates in and represents such practices. But think about the type of intellectual poverty that attends to a corpus of fiction isolated from historical materials such as private letters, non-fiction essays, unfinished projects, unpublished drafts, and marginalia of various sorts. Such historical material not only illuminate the published works of a given author, but add historical depth and context to the period in which they were writing.

This institutional and critical neglect becomes part of the writers lived experience. And I suspect that part of the difficulty in translating the significance of the act of writing to an English reader is the wild divergence in the institutional treatment of literary traditions which, in the Anglophonic world, are studied, preserved, and proudly displayed in beautifully rendered museum exhibits and anthologies. Because they are ubiquitous, such affirmations of self and country, culture and history, often go unnoticed–until, that is, one tries to translate texts that were written within one such environment into another.

About Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is a MESAAS doctoral student at Columbia University, where he works on trends in contemporary Sudanese literature and the place of Arabic as a language of poetry and thought in the modern Middle East. He lived for many years in Cairo. His first collection of translations (with Najlaa Othman) was published online by Words Without Borders in December, 2013. He is the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).