Books

'Banthology' gives voice to writers from Muslim-majority countries banned from U.S.

Najwa Binshatwan

Libya author
Najwa Binshatwan Libya author
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When President Donald Trump signed executive order 13769, banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, U.K. publisher and editor Sarah Cleave responded by creating “Banthology,” a collection of short stories written by authors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Her hope, as she explains in the book’s introduction, was “to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists.”

Originally published in the U.K. by Comma Press, “Banthology” now is available in the United States thanks to efforts made by Will Evans, founder and publisher of Deep Vellum Press in Dallas, Texas.

“As soon as I heard about Comma Press commissioning “Banthology” I wrote them and asked if they had a U.S. partner,” Evans said in a recent email interview.

Deep Vellum Press

Founded by Evans in 2013, Deep Vellum Press is a nonprofit literary publisher that connects English-language audiences with first-time translations of works by contemporary international writers. Deep Vellum has published more than 30 works, including by authors from Iceland, Argentina, Morocco, Russia and Mauritius.

“I founded Deep Vellum to bring the world into conversation through literature,” Evans said.

While studying Russian literature and culture in college and graduate school, Evans first became aware of a number of great Russian works that were untranslated.

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“I learned that this problem wasn’t unique to Russia, but effected every country, language and culture on Earth.”

“Less than 3 percent of the books published in the United States every year are translated, which means that we as a culture know little of how the world outside of ourselves think, live, love and process the universal human condition.”

Publishing Banthology

“Banthology,” then, was a natural fit for Deep Vellum not only because of the authors’ countries of origin, but for what the collection represents.

“The reasons are obvious: we are the country implementing this ban, we are the country leading the charge with wars and shadow wars and sanctions in the countries affected by this ban, and yet we as a reading public in this country have rarely, if ever, encountered stories by people from these countries.”

“Most Americans have never met anyone from these seven countries, and so rather than allow the political action speak for itself, we are giving voice to the world to respond to this ban and its effects, giving voice to our neighbors already here from those countries, those languages, those religions, those cultures.”

While “Banthology” authors were given the same task — respond to the ban through a story in your own voice — the form, content and style showcases a varied set of approaches to storytelling.

“They could have all written similar essayistic pieces or used similar narrative arcs,” Evans explained. But, he said, the diversity of styles made the collection more powerful.

“Fiction is derived from ancient storytelling traditions that define us as a human species, and in ‘Banthology’ these literary artists show the power of storytelling to respond to a current event and a highly charged political moment with characters, situations, style, and language (through the incredible translators who made this book possible, I must add!) that will stand the test of time as true literature, something greater than the moment, something eternal.”

Moving forward

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Evans is keen for more international texts to be published in the United States in the future, including a wider range of literature and academic work.

“ (I am) always hoping for more works of international literature to be published, and not just the most literary works, but more works of children’s and young adult literature, more works of non-fiction — academic, philosophical, memoir, anything — more commercial fiction, and of course more literary works like novels, poetry, and creative non-fiction since they are really where avant-garde artistic expression are to be found, pushing the boundaries of what’s known and experienced forward into the future.”

Evans and his team at Deep Vellum will continue to do their part, bringing new English translations of contemporary literature to the United States.

“Reading breaks down every false barrier between people, between cultures, and books like “Banthology” are ways to get inside someone else’s head for a minute.”

“It’s remarkable what that can do to opening your mind to the possibility that other people are different than you, and that is OK, and even awesome.”

Deep Vellum books — and book subscriptions — can be purchased at deepvellum.org or by visiting the Deep Vellum bookstore in Dallas.

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