As an intern at And Other Stories, I was lucky enough to read Traces of Enayat. At first, the thought of approaching a non-fiction text was daunting – is this about to be yet another dry, dense, and dull history lesson? Traces of Enayat was far from these disappointing labels, and instead, allowed me to unlock a completely new perspective to the world around us which actively challenges the erasure of literary legends and legacies.

Cairo, 1963: A tragedy befalls the literary world. The talented writer, Enayat al-Zayyat, commits suicide and leaves traces of an unfulfilled promise to her literary legacy. Historically, her suicide was falsely marked by the deterioration of her talent and her only novel, Love and Silence, was left unpublished and in the dark. Published four years after her death, Love and Silence gains traction and is embraced by audiences across both film and radio. However, it is not long until Enayat al-Zayyat’s existence fades into oblivion again.

Gifted poet Iman Mersal is captivated by Love and Silence and embarks on a personal journey to investigate and uncover the enigmatic life of Enayat al-Zayyat. Navigating readers through Enayat’s past, engaging in interviews with friends and family, Mersal reconstructs al-Zayyat’s life and emerges on a quest for answers. Who was Enayat? Did her novel’s rejection really lead her to her tragic decision? How did her voice vanish from the annals of literary history? The answers to these questions do not yield easily, even for Mersal who notes that ‘nothing about her [Enayat] would ever come easily’. Yet in spite of this frustration, the journey towards these answers still manage to provide us with a high, the sensation of existing outside of time and social criticism – Mersal accounts for a life that moves beyond social limitations and recentres the individual in all its emotional joy and devastation.

Mersal’s masterpiece is more than a biography – it’s a striking and immersive portrait of a resilient woman artist, who is determined to carve her own path in life. ‘Sometimes a piece of writing can shake your very being’: Through weaving in al-Zayyat’s own literary work, Mersal enables her existence to stand as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of literature. The dual sense of self-discovery, moving between al-Zayyat and Mersal’s emotional encounters, is bound to leave you inspired, enlightened, and profoundly moved by al-Zayyat’s strength and resilience. Through this, Mersal proves the instability of language, its institutional failure to account for any literary figure. After all, Mersal reminds us that the archive stands as ‘a culture’s awareness of its own memory’. Just as Mersal is haunted by al-Zayyat’s voice, Mersal never fails to poetically draw attention to the fact that there is a community of texts we have lost access to and must rescue.

This biography captures both the beauty and the complexity of the human experience through the lens of an extraordinary writer. While most biographies tend to stick to the mundane depersonalised approach, Mersal creates a dialogic relationship between her work and the emotional impact of al-Zayyat’s life and literature, a token of female solidarity that al-Zayyat was not afforded in her own lifetime. Mersal dedicates herself to al-Zayyat in heart-breaking and inspiring terms: ‘You will always be a part of my journey […] You are present in the alienation we both have lives, each in our own time’. This relationship lies at the heart of the text and contributes to the nostalgic grief of the biography. Mersal’s work is unclassifiable in its brilliance, defying genre boundaries, moving between different time zones and perspectives, to deliver the poignant narrative which challenges us to reconsider the forgotten voices in literary history. A tale of mystery, passion and resilience, Iman Mersal not only uncovers the life of Enayat al-Zayyat but awards her the long-awaited celebration she deserves and did not receive in her own lifetime.

Traces of Enayat is well worth the read, and publishes today with And Other Stories!

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