This fall, readers of an Amherst-based literary magazine might notice a slight tilt to the Middle East

By Sue Dickman ’89

[Publications] The Common is a two-year-old literary magazine that focuses on “a modern sense of place.” Though based in one place—Amherst College—it has featured work from various corners of the world: South African poetry, for example, and translations from Russian and Spanish. This fall, readers might notice a slight tilt toward another place: the Middle East.

That’s because its editor, Jennifer Acker ’00, spent the 2012–13 academic year in residence at NYU Abu Dhabi as a faculty fellow, where she taught the school’s first creative writing workshop. The time in Abu Dhabi also gave her the opportunity to make contacts with Middle Eastern writers.  

The October issue of The Common includes a short story, previously unpublished in English, by Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani. Acker says the story’s “innovative, modern style and preoccupation with the mental landscape of a woman in a traditional Arabic family” convinced her it was right for the magazine.  

In Abu Dhabi, Acker participated in a yearlong workshop that aimed to translate Al Karadib, the third novel in a trilogy by Saudi Arabian writer Turki el Hamad (who was recently imprisoned for five months for apostasy for remarks he made on Twitter).  The workshop included university faculty, students and staff, with Acker often the only native English speaker in the room. Translators worked in pairs in the fall, and then the workshop shifted to a group translation of a single chapter of Al Karadib in the spring, doubling their sessions in order to complete it. That chapter appears on The Common’s website this fall and will eventually be in the print magazine.

Jennifer Acker ’00

Acker, editor of The Common, helped translate work by a Saudi Arabian author. Photo by Paul Franz.

One of Acker’s main goals in her Middle Eastern sojourn was “bringing The Common to Abu Dhabi and bringing the Middle East to The Common. It’s an area of literature I don’t know very much about, and there are several excellent publishers and translators of Middle Eastern and Arabic literature.” She also wanted to meet authors and scholars in the region. “Of course, all of that can be done virtually to some extent, but these two pieces that are appearing in the magazine would not have come about through virtual efforts.”
Acker—who was in Abu Dhabi with her husband, Nishi Shah, an associate professor of philosophy at Amherst—is now contemplating the possibility of a special issue devoted to the Middle East. In the meantime, she is pleased that The Common will serve as “a venue for these authors to be introduced to an American readership and to the Amherst community.”