Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

'Nobody says my yoghurt is sour!'

A certain publisher has shown an interest in my work with Kusay Hussain. This is exciting news, although it’s only an interest, not a publishing deal, but it reminds me I was going to write here about what we’ve been doing all this time. Kusay is an Iraqi writer and a civil engineer who came here a few years ago because of the security situation in his country. He lives with his wife and children and, boy, does he have a few stories to tell.

Before leaving Iraq, there were attempts to kidnap one of his little sons. Kidnapping was, perhaps still is, a common tactic there for extorting money. Kusay was himself captured for a period. He also lived through several wars, lastly the invasion by US/UK troops, and endured the various privations visited upon his country as a result.

I am learning a lot. For instance, the quickest way to bring a country to its knees, especially a hot one, is to switch off the electricity. Turning it on provokes great gratitude. Our beloved sun can be a weapon. Different armies have different styles and some armies resemble prison camps. Mostly I’m learning about human endurance of one kind or another. (See my earlier post on Ingrid Betancourt for more on this.)

Kusay contacted the Scottish Book Trust who contacted Scottish PEN about help putting his stories into English. Scottish PEN contacted me. Kusay and I met for the first time in the Glasshouse in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, in March 2009 and continued to meet there for several months surrounded by cactus’s and close to a display of poisonous snakes and spiders, and a pond full of outsize goldfish. This place is well worth a visit especially if you have kids, and became a neutral haven for us to begin our work and build our trust in each other. We were invited to read our first story at the Scottish Parliament the following June.

Since then a great deal has evolved: our understanding of each other, our writing process, and the content of the stories he dares to write, because some of these stories re-awaken past events he might like to forget, and because the rest of Kusay’s family are still in Iraq and subject to the pressures and threats he and his wife and kids have been lucky enough to escape.

I know not one word of Arabic, and seem completely unable to retain even the little phrases that Kusay tries to teach me. But it doesn’t matter. He writes in his best English, which is, thank God or more likely Allah, improving, and I smarten it up. This involves correcting the language but also smoothing it out to make it more accessible to the English-speaking ear. There are all sorts of dilemmas in this, the most obvious difficulty being to know when it’s appropriate to retain Arabic phraseology or imagery and when it’s better to ‘translate’ it into something more common in English. Every phrase requires its own decision. It’s fun, trying to understand one another, especially that moment when we break through our confusion.

He writes in English because that is the language of the country in which he now lives and because he wants his stories brought to the West.
The best part is our meetings. Coming together are two cultures which we’re told are at odds with each other, but in fact are more similar than different. Coming together are two people who on the surface are vastly different, but who are in fact more similar that different. I have a new and very wonderful friend.

Of course having a friend brings obligations. Kusay keeps himself up at night preparing work for our meetings, and I worry about keeping up with his mass of ideas. Our meetings are fun, but the work itself can be time-consuming and there is all my own work to do too.

Our ventures have included many short stories but also poetry. This is particularly headachey for me because Kusay likes to use little short lines with rhymes that twine: this way is not mine, but it’s fine, some of the time. Occasionally they make no sense at all until we sit together and unlock them, which often means agreeing, with some difficulty, on compromises. Something has to be lost for something else to be gained. We have also worked on a plan for a book of common sayings from Iraq and also from Scotland. We gave up on the Scottish side of it as having been done, but the Iraqi ones were fabulous and included the origins of these sayings. Fundamentally it’s a book of fantastically quirky short stories and an insight into daily life in Iraq. My favourite saying so far is ‘Nobody says my yoghurt is sour.’ I like ‘Colder than the water porter’s ass’ too.

Kusay is also working on a couple of novellas and the big one: a co-written novel about an Iraqi exiled in Scotland and a Scottish soldier in Iraq. This last has proved very difficult indeed. After several weeks of planning it became clear that as writers our methods diverged radically. Kusay writes everything in his head, then puts it all on paper. I plan character, background, texture, beginning and end and perhaps a stepping stone or two in the middle, then I start writing and modify and modify and modify the plan as I go along. There were many misunderstandings until we saw this difference. He described it as having two people trying to drive the same car. So we stopped the car, got out and had a little picnic of short stories by the side of the road. What we now have is Kusay as driver but Sue as … well there is no driving equivalent; as creative editor or ghost-writer.

I used to call our process transmogrification, because I changed his writing only a little and added just a touch of English language writerly sparkle, not much, more of a sheen really. But this feels like something different. The creative aspect feels more mutual, like a proper collaboration, and not just taking turns with distinct tasks. Fabulous.

Here is a short video made by Al Jazeera English News about our work.


  1. It sounds like a brilliant work project - and enjoyable too! I really hope the publisher's interest becomes so strong that they just can't stay away. 'No-one calls my yoghurt sour' - unforgettable!

  2. I really can’t imagine collaborating with anyone. Tidying up someone’s English is quite another thing. I can see the fun in that. A while ago I did a review of a favourite book of mine, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which I first read when I was sixteen and return to about every ten years. This was the first time, however, that I looked at a different translation to the one I had been rereading all these years and it was so different you’d think it was a completely different author. On comparing the Russian it looked as if my version was the weaker one; the translator had taken great liberties with the text. It’s good that you and Kusay can interact and discuss your revisions. I was always under the impression that a translator’s aim was to get as close to transliteration as possible but what I noted when I compared Beckett’s original French texts with his own translations is that he rewrote much of the text when working in English, not because he had it wrong the first time and this was an opportunity to improve the piece, but because simple transliteration was inaccurate and often the subtlety on his original phraseology was lost. But I really wouldn’t want to work with a writer in any language on an original piece of work. I don’t work like either of you. I find an opening, a sentence, a setting, a concept and begin there working it out on the page as I go. I’ve heard Pinter describe a similar process ‘hearing’ voices in his head but having no idea who is speaking or where, not even knowing the gender (because the voices are all his voice at the start). It’s good though that some interest is being shown in Kusay’s work. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

  3. Thanks Morelle. We have to send them our work, but you know how it is: nothing is certain unless there's a signature on the line. But it certainly helps keep us focussed and hopeful.

  4. Hi Jim. Your Russian and French must be very good. I read Anna Karenina a few years ago partly in a (large) paperback and partly in an early ebook reader thingummy and then I realised I was actually reading two different books because they were different translations. It was very weird. I abandoned one, the ebook I think, after comparing a few paragraphs. Of course, what Kusay and I do is quite different. There is no Arabic original, only Kusay's English original which is often written i stilted and incorrect English, but I get the story and try to see the imagery in his head and then act accordingly. It is quite time-consuming. The correcting of the English is almost light-relief because, yes it's fun. In fact it's occasionally fun in that Primary 2 type of fun. Apologies to Kusay for this, but I know he understands: Primary 2 can hear the sounds of the words and think they know the right letters to pick for new words, and thus come out with some fantastic, often fantastically funny spelling mistakes. These mistakes lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. 'Drugged' for 'dragged' was one of Kusay's. He is living in Glasgow after all so I have to imagine how words might sound to him. I thought that story was going off in quite another direction.