Introduction to Wild Mulberries
by Iman Humaydan Younes

Editor's Note: What follows is an Introduction to Wild Mulberries, by Iman Humaydan Younes. This novel was recently published by Interlink and is introduced here by its translator, Michelle Hartman. Calque is published according to the notion that all foreign literature published in translation should be accompanied by an Introduction that contextualizes the work. These introductions serve, among other things, as an access point to the culture that produced the original work, as well as to the viewpoint of the translator who transformed the original into an English-language book. We hope to publish more introductions of this sort online and in the upcoming fall issue. To submit an introduction, please contact the editors.


INTRODUCTION to WILD MULBERRIES

Its back cover publicity announces Wild Mulberries as the story of one young woman’s coming of age—it follows the life of Sarah on the brink of adulthood in the Lebanese mountain village ‘Ayn Tahoon in the 1930s. This means that we can understand the novel as a sort of feminist bildunsgroman that traces Sarah’s journeys through her troubled relationship with her father, her missing mother, and her overbearing paternal aunt. It shows how she evolves into a woman through relationships with local village women and her best friend Doha, eventually forging an adult life for herself in her natal village.

But then again we could say that Wild Mulberries is really the story of ‘Ayn Tahoon itself—a small Druze village in the Shuf mountains—at the time when silk production in the region is declining. The village’s failed mulberry crop and the death of its silk worms leads to the dispersal of the town’s migrant workers and the family at the centre of the plot must decide how to diversify their means of income. It is about rural poverty and working women, paid and un-paid labour. In this reading, Sarah is a symbol of the changes happening in the village and the members of her family are used to represent the different trajectories of peoples’ lives in the region.

Incorporating elements of both, we could say that this is a story about patriarchy and its decline in a postcolonial location. The shift in French priorities, the increase in the world market for silk from China, means that this region goes into decline, forcing change onto ‘Ayn Tahoon. Just as the mulberry crop fails, so does the health and authority of Sarah’s father, the shaykh; he withers up just like the cocoons who no one cares for properly when the Syrian labourers leave the village. Butterflies emerge from these neglected cocoons as Sarah also becomes free of her past.

And there are still other ways to define this novel. It is a story of migration and displacement: its cast of characters include returning Argentinean émigrés, an Armenian, a Kurd, a Sunni woman from Aleppo, a coterie of English missionaries and an Australian who keeps the village shabab in whiskey and poker games. It is a series of “love” stories—or at least stories of intimate relationships—between the patriarch and his wife who runs away, Druze Sarah and her Christian boyfriend Kareem, the paternal aunt Shams and the long-suffering Ibrahim who eternally plans to marry her “after just one more successful silk season.” It is also novel of Lebanon, of the Shuf mountains, of the Druze community.

This slim volume of only one hundred and twenty five translated pages tugs the reader in different direction all at the same time. The plurality of readings reflects the plurality of voices, themes and ideas embedded within Humaydan Younes’ sparse prose. Wild Mulberries’ elliptical style challenges the reader to piece together not only the story but also how to understand its characters and their motivations. Part of the seduction of this novel is that it distances the reader even as it draws you into the story. Like other protagonists of similarly compelling fiction, Hanan al-Shaykh’s Zahra comes to mind, Sarah is a character who can arouse not only compassion and sympathy but also irritation and questioning. Why does she treat her husband Karim so diffidently after feeling such love for him originally? Why does she insist on returning to ‘Ayn Tahoon to find the truth about her mother only to sit in Karim’s mother’s house and not try to speak to the priest until it is too late? This and the provocative ending with Sarah’s young daughter toddling on the floor, raising the question of what kind of mother she herself will be, draw the reader into the world of Wild Mulberries, glimpsing this peculiar world inhabited by Sarah and her family from within it.

In my conversations with Humaydan Younes about the translation of the novel it became clear that she has thought deeply about every issue possibly affecting these characters, figuratively inhabiting their fictional world. She has crafted a textl that allows for only glimpse of the much more developed narrative that exists in the author’s imagination. Though Sarah’s life and world are completely fictional and share only certain tangential details with Humaydan Younes’ own, her recollections of childhood in the Shuf mountains give a certain perspective to the production of such a novel. The youngest of fourteen children, Humaydan Younes’ father was far from an oppressive patriarchal figure. She dedicates Wild Mulberries to this father who had a formative impact on her as a man committed to the dignity of women, including his own mother, wife and five daughters. Her sensitive portrayal of a variety of women’s worlds is no doubt in part a measure of her family, especially the extraordinary women surrounding her including her grandmother through whom she saw village women’s struggles.

Wild Mulberries, like her first novel B as in Beirut (Ba’ mithl bayt mithl Beirut), also very much invokes Lebanon. Humaydan Younes herself grew up in a Druze village in the Shuf mountains just like where Wild Mulberries is set. But far from the stereotype of an insular and separate Druze community, Humaydan Younes portrays the more complex reality of a multicultural, multicommunitarian community which she remembers from her own childhood. Born in 1957 long after this novel is set, Humaydan Younes nevertheless invokes the world of the 1930s with great detail and alacrity. Perhaps having lived through so much of Lebanon’s turbulence in the twentieth century—still living in Beirut today after remaining there throughout the Civil War, save for two periods around the birth of two of three of her own children—has helped her to sharpen her focus on the different Lebanons that have existed throughout that difficult century.

Perhaps also tied to this open, tolerant, culturally-aware family who Humaydan Younes sees as belonging to nowhere and everywhere, is the way in which her fiction is able to resist the clichés about East and West. The Druze community portrayed in Wild Mulberries, for example, is often exoticized and even fetishized in the Western imagination. But Humaydan Younes’ pen allows the specificities of the community shine through without trading on its difference. In a sensitive review of Mûriers sauvage—the French language incarnation of Wild Mulberries—Altan Golkap proposes that the novel resists what the Western reader so often demands: a bridge to connect East and West. Rather than give this reader the satisfaction of finding difference in the text, Humaydan Younes rather weaves an enigmatic tale in which both self and other are constantly combined and challenged. This resistance to simple, neat categories within Wild Mulberries carries over to its multiple definitions and why it a novel that is about Lebanon while at the same time not “about” Lebanon at all.

-- Michelle Hartman, July 8, 2008

• • •

Michelle Hartman is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. She has translated two novels from Arabic into English, Wild Mulberries by Iman Humaydan Younes and (with Maher Barakat) Just Like a River by Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib, both published by Interlink.

Iman Humaydan Younes is a Lebanese novelist, short-story writer and freelance journalist who lives and works in Beirut. She has published two novels in Arabic, Wild Mulberries (Toot Barri) is the second, her first is B as in Beirut (Ba mithl Bayt mithl Beirut). Both novels have been translated into English, French and German. She is currently working on her third novel.

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