• An Interview with Graham Liddell, Guest Editor of Absinthe 28 (2022)

    An Interview with Graham Liddell, Guest Editor of Absinthe 28 (2022)

    Posted by Sam McCracken on 2023-12-18

“[W]orking on Absinthe 28 made literary translation seem like something I could actually do—it made that kind of professional trajectory feel possible, now that I had gone through the motions of doing it.”


Last fall marked the publication of Absinthe 28: Orphaned of Light: Translating Arab and Arabophone Migration, an issue devoted to contemporary literatures of migration from across the Arabophone world, guest edited by Graham Liddell. In this interview, Graham sits down with Absinthe publicity editor Sam McCracken to reflect on the volume a year after its release—as well as on what he learned from his time at the editorial helm


Sam McCracken: I know you've already done several interviews about this Absinthe issue, Graham, but let's start from the beginning. How did you come to be in the position of guest editor for this volume? How did you find yourself bringing this project into being, and why this topic in particular? What led you to Orphaned of Light, in other words?

Graham Liddell: Well, I first got involved when I was invited to join the team of managing editors on Absinthe in the Department of Comparative Literature. I was interested in translation, and I think I was looking for more of a creative output. The first few years of the Ph.D. program often seem so much about producing content, content, content, and all of my academic work felt extremely analytical.

I guess I had the feeling that—I don’t know—I'm a creative person: I like to make music, and I’ve done some creative writing in the past. I kind of thought I wanted to do creative nonfiction writing for a while, and I worked in journalism. So, I guess translation appealed to me as a potential creative outlet as I continued to work on my dissertation.

So, I got involved from the editorial side of things and came to be guest editor after participating in three issues, I think, during which time I mostly assisted with copy-editing, taking part in editorial meetings, increasing Absinthe’s online presence, that sort of thing.

Then it came time for folks on the editorial team to volunteer to edit the next issue. And since I had been around for a while, it ultimately just kind of came to be my turn. So I thought, OK.

What made me choose this particular topic was essentially that my Ph.D. research focused on migration. My dissertation was more centered on the political and geopolitical dimensions of migration, so it required a lot of, you know, learning about asylum bureaucracy and sitting with the human misery that comes with “unauthorized migration.” But my work has always been focused on understanding so-called “unauthorized migrants” as authors of a sort, both when they tell their stories in their asylum interviews and when they pick up a pen and write things down with the aim of producing literature.

I was interested in comparing the kind of work an unauthorized migrant would produce in a creative literary context versus how they would present themselves in a strict, stiff bureaucratic context. So, since I had been reading a lot about that kind of stuff, it made the most sense for me to focus on migration as a topic for this issue.


Wow. That's all really fascinating to think about—these distinct modes of narrating migration and the “affordances” of bureaucratic, governmental interviews as themselves vehicles for nonfiction writing.

Yeah! Right. In the bureaucratic version, there are, you know, certain things that asylum seekers have to say in order to be eligible for asylum. But in literature, there are none of those same boundaries—or perhaps fewer of them. There's a lot more opportunity for creative expression, I guess.


Did you find as you were editing Absinthe 28 that the stories you ultimately included drew on the same sorts of tropes or ways of performing political legibility that you would see in asylum interviews, or is their work something altogether different?

I'm thinking of something like authorization. I try to draw a comparison in my dissertation between being unauthorized as a traveler and then becoming an author through the process of authorization—but now I'm talking to you more about my own project.


Fascinating! I see the resonances between your work and these texts, absolutely. Relatedly, I also couldn’t help but notice that the subtitle to the edition is “Translating Arab and Arabophone Migration.” How did you draw those lines, between “Arab” and “Arabophone?” Were you working with particular dialects of Arabic? What sort of national or ethnic backgrounds are represented in this “pan-Arabic” volume?

Sure. I think I ultimately chose to include “Arabophone,” here, because this volume features authors who write in Arabic but who aren't themselves ethnically Arab. And so there's work by an Eritrean author, a couple of Kurdish authors, Jan Dost (Syrian-Kurdish) and Gulala Nouri (Iraqi-Kurdish). I wanted to include authors who write in Arabic who might not be Arabs themselves. In  a perfect world, I would have included translations from works originally written in Persian as well because I, in my own research, talk about Afghan refugees who write in Persian.

Thinking about these different ethnic, geographical, and linguistic limitations almost like borders, I had to draw the line, so to speak, somewhere. But I wanted to be as inclusive as possible within that boundary line and within whatever was feasible to do. So that's why “Arabophone” features in the title.


No, that makes perfect sense. It almost seems as if, in focusing on migration in particular, you had a certain  opportunity to think about how the language is taken up by people who are not necessarily native speakers, right? That is, if I'm understanding you correctly, there were pieces written by people who did not speak Arabic as a first language?

Exactly. The Kurdish authors may have learned Kurdish first and then used Arabic outside of the home. There's actually a really interesting piece in the volume that touches on this: the one by Jan Dost, from Safe Corridor. It's essentially about internal displacement within Syria, about Kurds who have been forced to live elsewhere in Syria.

In certain spheres of life, you know, Arabic becomes necessary—whether through ethnic displacement or by virtue of the prevailing language of the culture in which one finds themself upon migration.

When I was doing fieldwork in Greece, I would meet young migrants from Iraq, often hailing from historically Kurdish regions. They might not speak very much Arabic at all, but they would learn it in order to communicate with other people in the camp. Probably if they had stayed in Iraq longer, they most likely would have learned a lot more Arabic, but because they left at such a young age, they simply weren’t exposed to it as much.


So, thinking about how these decisions were made, what were some of the challenges you faced as guest editor? And conversely, what unique sorts of joys or pleasures were you able to experience through the process of putting this together? I guess I'm asking a “highs and lows” kind of question.

So here’s something that was kind of both a high and a low: I was very intimidated at first by the prospect of acquiring rights to all these works and didn't really know how to begin—it all seemed really opaque to me from the outside. But ultimately, in the process of bringing this volume to press, I just did my best to find contact information for the authors, most of whom are still living, with the exception of two of them, Ghassan Kanafani and Saadi Youssef.

With many of the living authors, I found that they're not that famous necessarily—they're not so removed from society that it's impossible to get in touch with them. They're like most other people, and you can find them on the internet somewhere. And so, yeah, I got in touch with most of the authors, either by pulling their email addresses from a personal website or approaching them via Facebook Messenger, haha.

For me, it was a cool experience in itself to communicate with these authors in Arabic. We got to include something by a Palestinian author, Ghassan Kanafani, who died in the seventies that had been translated but never published in print. And I thought, oh, it would be really cool to publish that in print. So I found the email of Kanafani’s widow, Anni Kanafani, but she didn't respond for a really long time. But then, right as we were wrapping up the issue, she got back to me, and it was really cool to go back and forth with her.

It was just exciting to communicate with the authors (or their relatives) on a personal level. And it made me think about other graduate students who are thinking about getting involved in Absinthe,  like, if they want to do some translation work in the future, the whole process of getting in touch with authors and asking for rights was a really meaningful experience for me. I don't know, I just feel like it opened a door for me. There are a lot of people that I could now follow up with in the future if I wanted to translate something of theirs, and I could actually get the rights to do that. It was really a pleasure working with some of these authors.


Oh, that's so magical, Graham! I love that kind of serendipity. At the finish line, this person whose work you were excited about—but hadn’t yet heard back from—finally came through. That’s really cool.

With your mention of “opening doors” in mind, how do you expect this experience to shape the work you plan to do in the future? You just alluded to this, but do you intend to translate more work like this, or is it playing a part in your academic research? What do you hope to take from your time as guest editor, generally speaking?

I would certainly like to spend some time doing literary translation. I'm teaching right now as a visiting professor at Hope College. So for now, I don't have any fixed plans. I'm still doing some research when I can, and I hope to participate in ACLA this year. So I'm still doing scholarship, but I guess the type of work I'm most interested in publishing is literary translation. So this was in some ways a cool “trial run” to see how possible that line of work would be for me. I translated one of the pieces, but most of them are translated by other people, while I put them all together and edited them.

But fundamentally, I think working on Absinthe 28 made literary translation seem like something I could actually do—it made that kind of professional trajectory feel possible, now that I had gone through the motions of doing it.

I was interviewed by ArabLit magazine, and in the world of contemporary Arabic literary translation, they publish a lot of interesting new stuff. So, as with establishing contact with the authors featured in Absinthe 28, getting connected with ArabLit was a really positive outcome from all of this. It made it seem like, oh, ok, I could maybe publish some more stuff in the future. So that was exciting. Also, I'm on some of my own syllabi this semester; I assigned some of the works from Absinthe. So, I'm not too shameless to assign my own work or work that I’ve personally edited. I'm teaching a course right now on contemporary literature about unauthorized migration, and I’m assigning some things from Absinthe toward the end of the semester because it fits the theme perfectly. That’s one concrete way that I’m using this experience in my current teaching. 


So cool, Graham. If you had to choose, what would you say is your favorite piece in this collection? Did something jump out at you as you were editing these pieces, or did you go in with a favorite already?

I think my favorite is the last entry. It's from a longer work called Dates and Wild Artichokes.

I also worked with Khaled Mattawa who teaches at U-M. I worked with him on organizing an event a few years ago, “Translation and the Making of American Community,” and he ended up contributing some of his own translations of Saadi Youssef’s poetry.

Khaled was born in Libya. And I was asking him like, hey, I know there's a lot of migration through Libya nowadays, but are there any Libyan works on this kind of topic? And he recommended Mohamad Alasfar, basically saying that this was a friend of his who writes all the time but just doesn't get a lot of attention. And I was just blown away by the chapter after I read it.

There are some really interesting elements of magical realism to it, and I was really taken with the style of narration. And again, Alasfar’s story is in complete contrast to the “trauma porn” that we often see when we think about these truly awful human experiences—like, of seeing people at their worst. But that's not always what migrants experience. So, reading something written in this light kind of way can be such a refreshing thing when you're otherwise used to, you know, just reading about the worst parts of human experience. I read it, and I smile the entire time I'm reading it.


I love that this piece offers a certain “breath of fresh air” because this volume is, of course, centered on a heavy topic. But also, ultimately, you're dealing with people who have a range of experiences and meet these situations in different ways.

Ok, here’s a “fun” final question. If you could pitch another Absinthe volume, what literature(s) would it focus on, and why?

Oh, I don't know! That’s a good question. See, nobody would be all that interested in this, but I’ve been interested recently—you know, in another life, if I were to do a different kind of Ph.D. entirely—in Syriac. If I were to learn a Classical language, it might be Syriac, because, basically, it acts as a kind of bridge between Arab philosophical writing and ancient Greek philosophy. There's this whole history of, like, certain Arabs preserving this ancient Greek philosophy that we now hold dear, and if it weren't for the Arabs, we simply wouldn't have had it.

But the part of that piece that's missing is that a lot of these Greek texts had already been translated into a different Semitic language, which was Syriac—and these were Christians who would have spoken or understood Greek because they would have been reading The New Testament. But they also spoke Syriac as their vernacular Semitic language. So they often were the first ones to have translated the Ancient Greek philosophical texts into a Semitic language. Then, when the Arabs were translating these texts, and were looking for words that didn’t exist in Arabic—like to describe these Ancient Greek philosophical concepts—they often took these Syriac words. So maybe I would do that: a volume on Syriac literature.


I would gladly read that issue! I’m not familiar with Syriac, honestly, but it seems I have some Googling to do after this chat. Well, Graham, on that note, do you have any other thoughts about this issue of Absinthe?

One person I didn't mention earlier was Sara Abou Rashed. She presented some of her work at the Comp Lit reception. I just thought she did such a great job performing her work, especially because she read her poetry in a bilingual way. In the issue, we put Sara’s poetry in a side-by-side format. Anyway, I just wanted to shout her out because she was super helpful.

She looked at a lot of the Arabic originals with me and helped to point out problems that we had to bring up with translators and screening for potential typos, especially at the Arabic script in the poetry section. She helped us a lot with that. So it was really a pleasure working with her and would encourage future editors of Absinthe to reach out to other graduate students to be editorial assistants, particularly if there's something you want to cover something that you're not a complete expert on. And at a campus like U-M, there might be somebody else who is an expert on that exact thing and who can help out with that. That was a really enriching collaboration.


Oh that's lovely! You're right, it really helps to have people who are in national literature programs or in a related academic unit to help supplement our own understanding because, I mean, in Comp Lit, we're all very flexible, agile thinkers. But I sometimes wonder if that flexibility, that “jack-of-all-trades” breadth comes at a certain expense of the deeper kind of expertise that might make these connections even clearer.

Yeah, I think the collection is better for it because, at the end of the day, people are experiencing this volume as more of a creative work than an academic text, so it helps to have someone like Sara, an MFA student, who can bring her expertise in both the content and form of the texts. 


This has been such a nice conversation, Graham. Thanks so much for setting aside some time to chat with me today, and congratulations on Absinthe 28!

Thank you, Sam. It’s been great to talk to you.

Absinthe 28: Orphaned of Light: Translating Arab and Arabophone Migration (2022) is available for purchase here. You may also read the open-access version of the issue for free here.


Graham Liddell is a writer, translator, and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Hope College (Holland, MI).  After serving as guest editor for Absinthe 28 (2022), Graham earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan in 2023 with a dissertation project centered on the narration of contemporary Arab and Afghan migration experiences in both published literature and the asylum process. In 2019–2020, he conducted fieldwork and interviews with asylum seekers while volunteering in Greece. His translations of two short stories from Emile Habiby’s collection Sextet of the Six-Day War were published in Banipal in 2022. Prior to graduate school, Graham worked in journalism, focusing on the Arab world and its diasporas. His writing has been published in USA Today, Middle East Eye, and the Detroit News, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @grahamliddell.

Sam McCracken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, as well as a student of the Graduate Certificate program in Digital Studies. He currently serves as publicity editor for Absinthe 29: Translating Jewish Multilingualism (2023).


Back to News List