Winner of the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, this experimental novel considers love as a weapon of empire. It follows two Egyptians in Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. A wealthy American who has come to the city to get in touch with her roots senses her lack of authenticity, particularly because she did not participate in the protests. Her love interest is a native-born activist and photographer who documented the uprising. But their differences are as much a source of tension as they are of attraction.
... propulsive and philsophical ... Naga dissects the shifting, slippery shapes of belonging and power under global capitalism ... The novel’s inventive form enlarges these ideas, unsettling our understanding of who is speaking and who is being addressed. In the first of the book’s three sections, each chapter opens with a philosophical question. It’s unclear to whom the questions are posed and that’s why they’re so effective—the novel invites the reader to consider each query too ... And throughout, the novel brims with sparkling prose. Naga’s sentences are precise and rich with bold, complex observations ... Naga doesn’t allow the reader to rest in easy notions of right and wrong or culpability and innocence ... This novel has a global, diasporic outlook; within it, we are all implicated.
Rare are books that can truly—in the most genuine and interesting sense—be called experimental, but Alexandrian poet and writer Noor Naga’s first prose novel is one such rarity. Sharp, switched-on, and self-interrogating, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English masterfully continues, long after the last page is read, to provoke uncomfortable yet essential questions about what we demand from literature that represents otherness ... Naga ridicules our ignorant expectations of 'marketable' literature depicting otherness. As a writer, Naga does not excuse herself from this scrutiny, the final revelation of this inventive and brilliant book scathingly proving her very point.
The short chapters keep the pages turning during the first two sections as the narrative heads toward the inevitable catastrophe, and the meta-fictional third section helps readers process what may have disturbed or offended in the story itself and its depiction of the characters, addressing current conversations about authorial voice, consent, and cultural appropriation. Extraordinary.