This week’s Borderless Book Club saw a wonderfully insightful discussion surrounding Palestine +100, an anthology published by Comma Press and edited by Basma Ghalayini. For the evening we were joined by Becca Parkinson of Comma Press, Basma Ghalayini, and also Thoraya El-Rayyes, a translator of one of the stories in the anthology.
Palestine +100 is a fascinating and unique collection of short stories. The anthology asks twelve Palestinian writers to create a sci-fi story set in 2048, one hundred years after the horrific events of the Nakba. It seems that the idea of sci-fi acts as a broad term, with each writer creating vastly different worlds that incorporate ideas of the speculative, the dystopian and magical realism. This anthology proves that sci-fi is the perfect genre with which to talk about the past and present through imagining the future. For Palestine+100, the genre of sci-fi simply acts as a vehicle that allows each writer to explore more in-depth ideas of a repressed community.
Becca explained that Palestine +100 was Comma’s bestseller in 2019, and came after the success of their first book in this series, Iraq +100, an anthology in which contributors were asked to write a story 100 years after the UK and US invaded Iraq in 2003. Basma explained that book is coming in Arabic soon, going on to say that it seems fiction such as this is becoming more popular in Palestine, with a whole new generation of Palestinians thirsty to see themselves represented in literature. Basma explained that it was intentional to include writers in the collection who each had a very different relationship to Palestine, in this way, each story would offer a different perspective on the events, their impact, and their potential future. For example, some writers were born in Palestine and still live there, others grew up there and moved away, and some were even born outside of Palestine and are still living elsewhere. It was important to Basma that each of the writers had a bio in which they discussed how the Nakba affected them and their families. Basma said that she was pleasantly surprised by some of the optimism found within the stories, for example, some imagined cases in which the two ‘sides’ were living and existing somewhat peacefully together. However, Thorya disagreed, stating that she in fact found them to be very disturbing, dystopian and often saddening.
It is clear that the idea of movement is central to many of the stories. Basma explained that she believes this is due to the fact that Palestinians are always moving, crossing divisions, walls and borders. This coincides well with the genre of sci-fi in which time and space are often navigated, as a result, the genre of sci-fi lends itself particularly well to this topic. There was also a discussion on the idea of preserving memory and history, something that is often seen as a ‘duty’ for Palestinians, again, this is clearly seen throughout many of the texts in which ideas of silencing, forgetting and disillusion feature heavily, culminating in the idea of a collective memory and trauma that is, in some cases, impossible to forget.
Thoraya then talked to the group about how she came to translate the story written by Madj Kayyal, titled ‘N’. Thorya explained that she has worked with Comma before, and has a lot of experience translating experimental short fiction, this being her speciality. She explained to the group that she really enjoyed the process, finding the story incredibly thought provoking. Thoraya described ‘N’ as a story in which everyone gets what they said they wanted, however, despite this, something does not feel quite right. This is perhaps because no one is addressing the problematic past that led to this point, instead they escape through virtual reality, something which Thoraya explained she found quite disturbing.
We then moved onto a group discussion of the collection. Many of us found the stories to be very disorienting, perhaps this is due to the nature of sci-fi, or, perhaps on a more meaningful level, is intended to reflect on the disorienting reality of these people’s lives. We all agreed that each writer imagined an incredibly detailed futuristic world in each of the stories, with many of the characters and settings being very profoundly developed, something which must be difficult to do in the small space of the short story form.
It was quite surprising that virtual reality features so heavily in the book, appearing in a large number of the stories. Whilst it is certain that virtual reality is becoming more and more popular across the globe, it is interesting to see that many of these writers envisage it playing a key role in the future of Palestine – albeit a very disturbing one. It could be that this stems from something that we discussed earlier in the evening, the fact that for the Palestinian community, the past is almost impossible to avoid or to escape from, and plays a huge role in every Palestinian’s identity. Virtual reality then, is the only way to have respite from this traumatic past, and sadly, in many of the stories, the only way in which to ‘live’ in or experience peace.
Despite being an anthology set in the near future, in each of the twelve stories, the past lingers. Again, this comes back to an inability to forget, and the presence of a collective trauma and history that is embedded in and passed down through generations. It could also be considered that this focus on the past is a resistance to being silenced. Related to this focus on the past, the group also discussed the fact that no utopian futures were imagined in the collection. Basma explained that she believed a reason for this lack of optimism could be that it may be considered as too strong of a political statement, and a denial of the fact that unfortunately, things are currently getting worse.
I can certainly say that Palestine +100 is like no other book I have read before. Whilst each of the twelve stories dealt with similar themes such as memory and silencing, they all present very different futures, and very different ideas. Not only did I enjoy reading this brilliant collection, but I have also learnt a lot more about Palestine’s history (and present) through the eyes of twelve writers.
The next meeting will see a discussion on Wild Woman, by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books!