Publishing in Tunisia: An Interview with Elisabeth Daldoul of Elyzad

Elisabeth Daldoul founded her publishing house, Elyzad, in Tunisia almost six years ago. My first experience with her was with A cinq mains, a book in which she published five short stories written by five different women writers either from the Maghreb or related to the Maghreb. She had asked each of us to write about the hand, drawing our inspiration from this powerful image in Maghrebi culture or simply approaching the theme in its more universal associations.  We were totally free as long as our text had something to do with a hand or hands. I was really impressed by the quality of her work, her determination not only to publish written words but a beautiful object you like holding on your lap as you read it. I also noticed how dedicated and determined she was, organizing presentations of our book, not only in Tunisia but also in France, Algeria, and Morocco. She made publishing a living, meaningful adventure. I could feel the words we had written reverberating around us through all these encounters with readers in different countries. I have been keen to go on working with her ever since.

I would have liked to see her on my first return to Tunisia after the Revolution last March, but I was headed for a different part of the country. We had long conversations on the phone. She was also immersed in the same vibrant post-revolutionary period I was discovering, speaking to the people around me, reading the slogans painted on the walls even in the smallest villages. “Power to the people!” or “The blood of our martyrs remains in our hearts” or “Tunisia is free!” She was working as hard as ever hurrying to prepare the first titles of a new collection, dealing with concepts like democracy. She is determined to publish the first two before July 24, when the Tunisians will elect the assembly in charge of writing a new Constitution for the country. She finally answered my questions when I was back in France, still overwhelmed by the changes I had perceived, feeling that I now had all the more reasons to go on working with her, to somehow take part in the birth of a new country.—Cécile Oumhani

 

Cécile Oumhani: Why did you become a publisher?

Elisabeth Daldoul: I suppose it came out of a need to share, to bridge the gap between cultures, different modes of thinking and also because I wished to eradicate prejudices. I think this has a lot to do with my multicultural background. I was born of a Palestinian father and a French mother. Before I came to Tunisia, I used to live in Dakar, where my family currently resides. This background also influenced my previous professional life; I first worked as a reporter for Radio France Internationale, then as a bookseller, a teacher, and now as a publisher, I am still pursuing my role as a sort of go-between.

CO: What kind of books do you wish to publish? How do you meet your authors?

ED: I publish novels, short stories. Literary texts pass on emotions, knowledge of the “other,” through his/her innermost, deepest and most universal self. Literature is a means of learning about the world we live in. And this vision of the world, this vision of humankind is what I am interested in.

In the beginning, the authors I published approached Elyzad fortuitously. Naturally enough, the first were Tunisian novelists, and then we added authors living across Tunisian borders to our catalog, as I met them by chance or because I wanted to meet them. The richness of our catalog lies in this diversity: authors coming from the South as well as from the North, offering a reading of a multiple world.

CO: Does the context of Tunisia, a country where texts are not only written in Arabic but also in French, make publishing different, somehow specific?

ED: Yes, undoubtedly. Publishing in French in a country whose official language is Arabic is a choice you want to seriously think about when you start a publishing house. I received manuscripts from francophone Tunisian writers (Ali Bécheur, Azza Filali, Emna Belhaj Yahya . . .) and I enjoyed making their writing travel beyond Tunisia. This is where my role as a go-between came in.  French is the second language in the country and Tunisia is open to the French-speaking world.

CO: What role does a publisher play in the manuscripts he/she receives?

ED: The publisher serves as a link between the author and her/his readers.  Publishing is anything but an insignificant act, and I think it requires great intellectual honesty, out of respect for the reader. The publisher has an obligation to commit herself/himself.

CO: What kind of readers are you trying to reach?

ED: Those curious about what goes on in the world around them.

CO: What kind of obstacles are you confronted with in the circulation of your books?

ED: Inside the Maghreb, administrative procedures are complex. It is still difficult for publishers in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to make the books they publish circulate between these countries. Procedures are simpler when we send them to Europe, but the support organizations we need to ensure the visibility of our books for the reading public, such as the press, remain difficult to access.

CO: What changed for you with the Tunisian Revolution?

ED: Freedom. It’s as simple as that. The freedom to speak and to write! This changes everything. For the last two years, we have not been required to submit books for approval. It was no longer necessary to wait for the certificate of the Ministry of Culture to start selling our books. But this censorship had been so present for so long that we refrained from crossing the red line: religion, sex, and politics. We were literally anesthetized and a number of intellectuals were actually oppressed.

CO: You are currently working on a new collection you created in the wake of January 14.

ED: The Tunisian Revolution has opened new perspectives to explore, which would have been just unthinkable a few months ago. This has led us to start a new collection with a focus on the spirit of citizenship. The first books will be What is Democracy? and Secularism; they will provide lay readers with the core elements they need.

CO: Do you think this revolution is going to lead people to write differently, about new themes, breaking past molds?

ED: Since January 14, a lot of texts have been published, related to the revolution and the deposed president. I haven’t received any novels dealing with the period that followed. I think it is still too early. Emotions have been so powerful; we have been through such an upheaval that novelists will need time to reassess all this. The question on my mind at the moment is: what about self-censorship? Did people do away with it when the dictatorship was toppled? I am eagerly waiting for the texts to come.