By Jennifer Micale
February 22, 2021
Poetry is always an act of translation: taking a deeply personal vision and finding the words and sounds that allow this experience to take shape in another mind, across the divide of language, nationality and identity.
That’s something that Binghamton University alumna Mona Kareem knows well. She first published her poetry as a teenager in Kuwait, and has continued to write in both English and Arabic. After earning her master’s and then her PhD in comparative literature, she has also gone on to translate the work of other authors, and recently received a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship in Literature Translation.
Kareem, who earned her doctorate in 2018, will translate Falcon with Sun Overhead by Iraqi poet Ra’ad Abdulqadir into English for the NEA fellowship, one of 24 that the NEA awarded for translation this year. The NEA fellowship is among the highest honors a translator can receive, especially in regard to funding.
Abdulqadir, who died in 2003, wasn’t celebrated during his lifetime. He circulated his writing primarily in smaller circles, during a tumultuous period when Iraq faced international sanctions. Kareem first encountered his work in 2005 as it circulated on the internet, and was enchanted by both his cinematic vision and his ability to capture tragedy in subtle poetics. A few years ago, she began to translate his poetry in her spare time.
Because Abdulqadir is a prose poet, Kareem doesn’t have to match the rhythm and meter of a set poetic form in her translation. However, she does her best to mimic his style, which relies on everyday language punctuated by the occasional obscure word as a way to playfully draw the reader’s attention to the roots of language.
“His aesthetic is very cinematic and has a kind of storytelling; it captures the small details,” Kareem reflected. “It was an unusual voice to translate.”
A stateless poet
Kareem first discovered her love of literature as a child, navigating her father’s substantial library. Her own father never attended college, but had a passion for literature and assembled a global collection of books in translation, with authors from Latin America, the United States, Russia and across Europe
She became an accomplished poet in her own right, starting at the age of 14 when she published her first collection; two more volumes of her work followed in Arabic. While she took a hiatus from poetry in college and graduate school, a trilingual poetry chapbook, Femme Ghosts, came out in 2019 and includes poetry in English, Arabic and Dutch. She recently finished a new poetry manuscript in English that will hopefully see print in 2022.
“I consider myself a bilingual poet. When you’re bilingual, you feel like you are always in translation, even when you write in your mother language,” she said. “There’s always an act of translation in writing, so I think that translation and poetry are inseparable in that sense.”
Her published translations range from individual poems to full-length books, including an Arabic edition of Octavia Butler’s Kindred published in Kuwait last year. Her English translation of Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award in 2016, and was reprinted by English PEN in 2017.
Currently translator-in-residence and visiting lecturer at Princeton University, Kareem has held fellowships and residencies with Poetry International, Arab-American National Museum, Norwich Center and Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin, and served as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The concepts of identity and belonging thread through her work, drawing on her experience as a refugee.
Growing up in Kuwait, Kareem and her family were denied citizenship because they are Bedoon, a group of tribal descent. Once treated as citizens, the Bedoon were reclassified as foreigners in 1983, stripping them of rights they formerly held: the right to obtain birth certificates, death certificates, drivers licenses and passports; to attend public schools and universities; to work in Kuwait and travel outside it.
Her poetry opened doors, and a Kuwaiti family paid for her education at the American University of Kuwait, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English and comparative literature.
She was able to obtain a passport to attend graduate school in Binghamton, but Kuwait refused to renew it after she spoke about her experience as a stateless person at conferences. That left her in a confusing legal situation — and unable to see her family for nine years.
Her graduate studies gave her a sense of stability during this difficult time, and she became a legal resident of the United States in 2015. She hopes to become a citizen sometime next year, and see her family again.
“While I feel like I’m on my own, without a family and without that community, I am not alone in this. As you know, the United States is a nation of immigrants and refugees, and Binghamton actually has a lot of immigrants and refugees,” she reflected. “I feel like I’m seeing others and being seen.”
Mona Kareem was initially drawn to Binghamton by the pioneering translation work of Professor Rosemary Arrojo, who headed the Translation Research and Instruction Program until June 2007 and has since retired. She also appreciated Binghamton’s comparative literature program for its flexibility, which allowed her to pursue her diverse interests in literature, creative writing and translation.
At Binghamton, Kareem focused her scholarship on feminist studies, postcolonial literature and literary criticism, ultimately completing a dissertation on contemporary Arab feminist literature.
She enjoyed supportive and encouraging relationships with professors in both the comparative literature and English programs, including Distinguished Service Professor Susan Strehle and the late Professor María Lugones, who transformed Kareem’s thinking and encouraged her to include personal elements in her writing. Kareem’s advisor, Associate Professor Monika Mehta, encouraged her varied interests with both patience and respect for her independence as a scholar.
“As a poet, scholar, translator and journalist, Mona has a multi-faceted intellectual identity,” Mehta said. “She is able to draw upon a rich reservoir of critical and creative skills to reflect upon translation, race, citizenship and gender. And, her experiences as a stateless person make her deeply invested in and committed to rights of minority communities.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the scholars who most influenced her trajectory at Binghamton were women, Kareem reflected.
“I’m really glad that I was able to meet these very special woman scholars,” she said.