Yamen Manai and Élisabeth Daldoul
Author Yamen Manai, whose latest novel Bel Abîme has just received several awards, in conversation with his publisher Élisabeth Daldoul, talks about the challenges facing the publishing industry in Tunisia. This interview is part of the Livres des deux rives programme, supported by the Institut français, which aims to support dialogue between civil societies on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean through cooperative book-related activities.
Updated on 16/03/2023
Élisabeth Daldoul, could you tell us about the origins of Elyzad Editions and its activities over the last two decades?
Élisabeth Daldoul: I created Elyzad in Tunis in 2005, under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, at a time when Tunisians were being suffocated intellectually. We had to find new forms of expression, and it was my meeting with a particular writer, Ali Bécheur, that pushed me to publish my first book, Tunis Blues. Twenty years later, Elyzad is still going strong, with a number of established authors in its catalogue who have become more visible with each publication. I am thinking in particular of Yamen, whose début novel, La marche de l'incertitude, was published in 2008. We are now working with him on his fourth novel. It is very important for us to cultivate an ongoing relationship with authors.
How did you discover Yamen Manai's work and why did it inspire you?
Élisabeth Daldoul: I encountered Yamen through his first novel, La marche de l'incertitude, which completely won me over. I liked his voice, fresh and full of truth, free of distractions. The strength of his writing is that every new work takes me by surprise, which is a real pleasure for an editor.
Yamen Manai, you began your writing career over ten years ago with Élisabeth Daldoul. How do you both see the relationship between an author and their editor?
Yamen Manai: I met Elisabeth on the fringes of the Tunis Book Fair, and I found the ideal partner in Elyzad because I wanted above all to publish and be read in Tunisia. As Elisabeth said, there was a kind of lack of interest in the ideas of the mind in our country at the time. I wanted, as Confucius said, to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Through the various authors in their catalogue, Elyzad Publishing allows many Tunisian voices to express themselves, both locally and internationally. Beyond questions of distribution, this publisher's high standards have also allowed me to grow as a writer – working closely with the two editors at Elyzad, Elisabeth and Vanessa Pécastaings, allows me to progress more easily from a promising manuscript to a powerful book.
Your latest novel, Bel Abîme, was awarded the 2022 Arab Literature Prize and the 2022 Orange Book Prize in Africa. What does that represent for you?
Yamen Manai: The important thing about these prizes is that they allow books to live, and to emerge from the media shadows to which they are often confined. Authors like me have very little space to exist outside specialist media. Prizes are never the real motivation for writers and publishers anyway. The real prize is the feedback from readers and booksellers. Breaking through the glass ceiling and being considered as literature in its own right, with meaning and truth beyond the fact that it emanates from a particular place, is a long journey. Awards are just the tip of the iceberg. The prizes awarded to French-speaking authors are more like a tree that hides the forest, because there are many, many authors who deserve to be better recognised and better distributed.
Can you tell us how you came to want to tell this story, and the particular circumstances in which you wrote this novel?
Yamen Manai: I was originally working on another manuscript, which had nothing to do with Tunisia and its political context. Then suddenly I saw the scenes of violence in the Tunisian parliament that upset me. I wondered about the place of violence in Tunisian society, and whether those elected representatives fighting in the Assembly were really representing us. Bel Abîme attempts to answer this question by describing this patriarchal society, whose mechanisms are still poorly understood. At the time of Ben Ali, Tunisia was perceived as a peaceful and prosperous place, which was obviously false. But for me, the role of a writer is precisely to "expose the chimeras", as Diogenes said, to break taboos and to impose certain difficult themes. Bel Abîme is a short text that I wrote in a short space of time, caught up in a whirlwind of emotions, and through which I expressed the raw voice of a Tunisian youth that is constantly denigrated.
What is your assessment of the current state of publishing in Tunisia and North Africa, and more broadly of the distribution of contemporary literature in the region?
Élisabeth Daldoul: Many book clubs have sprung up in Tunisia in the last few years, which is always an encouraging sign. The energy that surfaced in 2011, this appetite for literature, continues, as demonstrated by the opening of two large bookshops in Tunis in 2022. But it is difficult to export culture beyond the capital. Despite this, I can see a dynamic in the world of books with the activities of several publishing houses, although it is far from easy and requires a lot of courage on the part of the actors involved. At an institutional level, on the other hand, genuine upheaval is required to make books an integral part of young people's education. Without a real book policy, the profession of publisher or author remains very fragile.
To what extent do you think the Livres des deux rives project opens up prospects in this area?
Élisabeth Daldoul: It obviously strengthens dynamism and the desire to publish, because publishers have widely embraced the programme. It allows us to enrich and diversify our catalogues, to publish more demanding writing, for example through co-publishing. So it is a valuable programme, but it cannot replace the implementation of genuine policy on the subject, on a national scale. Books must also be allowed to circulate at a national level, and in this area we are still doing what we can, according to our means.
Yamen Manai, you took part in the professional meetings organised as part of the Livres des deux rivesproject in March 2022: what do you remember about the challenges of translation between French and Arabic and how do you perceive the circulation of your works between the two languages and the two shores of the Mediterranean?
Yamen Manai: My position as an author who writes in French is that an author writes mainly to be read. Happiness, as they say, is only complete when it is shared. Unfortunately, publishers in the Arabic-speaking world face many difficulties. The book market suffers from the geopolitical situation in some countries of the Arab world.
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