Essay: Yasmine Seale on erasing and remaking The Thousand and One Nights

she never quite completes her sentence
but is always almost
    – Alice Oswald, ‘Tithonus’

I, a girl, exultant, crossed into the room of sentences.
    – Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal

Last year, in a café near where I live in Istanbul, I noticed an old book on a shelf. It was the kind of place that seemed to have bought its books by the metre to decorate the walls, so I asked if I could keep the volume that had caught my eye: a cheap edition of Edward Lane’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights, first published in 1838. I took the book home and began to deface it. Thus began a project of erasure, excerpted overleaf, which has grown alongside my work on a new translation of the text.

The earliest surviving evidence of a work by that name is a receipt from a Jewish bookseller in twelfth-century Cairo, recording the loan of something called Alf layla wa layla, a thousand nights and a night. The receipt has survived because of the medieval Jewish belief that anything written in Hebrew script, even a receipt, was sacred, and therefore could not be destroyed even long after the text had served its purpose. For over a thousand years the Jews of Cairo kept every word they wrote, religious and secular, poetic and personal, and buried it all in a cemetery, or geniza.

What was loaned? We have a receipt and a title, but no text. The book itself, written in Arabic not in Hebrew, earthly not divine, was not buried, and has been lost. Or rather, it went the way of all human speech: it was subject to change, censorship, embroidery, misremembering and adaptation. Whatever it may have meant in twelfth-century Cairo, the Nights has never been a stable thing, and has never stopped changing shape. It is a loose collection of stories with no single author, altered and passed on by editors and compilers, translators and scribes, each of whom has enhanced, cut and shaped it over the centuries. No one can say what the Nights is: are there forty stories or two hundred? Which ones are authentic? What does that even mean? Its earliest incarnation was already a reworking of a Persian text, which itself adapted material from India, China and elsewhere. From the beginning, the Nights has been in perpetual translation.

If it is not stable, what is it? What makes the Nights the Nights? The stories may shift, they may have lost their authors, but they have a common narrator. A story becomes a Nights story because this woman has told it. Many versions have proliferated in the last thousand years, sometimes in radical conflict, but everyone agrees that the Nights begin and are held together by the framing story of Shahrazad.

A jealous king, to banish the risk of being betrayed – the problem of a woman being a person – decides to take a new wife every night and have his vizier kill her in the morning. He does this until there are almost no women left. Then, ex machina, a girl steps forward:

    now the vizier who had the women murdered had two daughters of his own, the elder Shahrazad and the younger Dunyazad,
    and Shahrazad had read a lot of books, science and philosophy, knew poetry by heart, had studied history and myth and the wisdom of kings, and she was practised at clear thinking and full feeling and close reading, and one day she said to her father Let me tell you what is on my mind

What is on her mind is to marry the king and end the massacre. Her wild gamble is that by telling him stories every night – by crossing into the room of sentences – she will change him and move him to accept what he cannot control. This is how the Nights begin: a man experiences a complicated emotion and commits mass murder in response, and a woman takes on the task of talking him out of it. A talking cure: the longest and most high-stakes therapy session in literature.

Teller as she became, Shahrazad is first a skilful reader and recaller. From the night-remembered pieces of old texts she trills an endless song. The library in her mind is her material. Fodder for the first erasure artist, memory. Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text. (Susan Howe on another great eraser, Emily Dickinson.)

Antoine Galland, the first translator, worked on the Nights “only after dinner”. As the latest recruit, I would like to be able to say the same – the magical symmetry of 1001 Nights produced over 1001 nights – but I can’t work like that. During a bout of insomnia I thought I had found my chance, but my body and brain refused to go near the Word document. Instead I turned to Lane, the volume poached from the cafe bookshelf, and words from the page started to swim up at me in constellations. Sleepless, half-dreaming, I saw a cache of poems – a miniature geniza – buried in the book.

Like the sonnet, lipogram or haiku, erasure is a form of constrained writing. A poem is composed not from the pool of all possible language but only from the words that appear on a given page. Then again, how many writers draw on all possible language? Is composition ever not constrained? We slip into grooves of grammar. Vocabularies set like jelly. This hardening of verbal tics is what we call style. Lane, the earnest son of a priest who immersed himself in Arabic from a young age, had read very few books in English. One of the few was the King James Bible, which left a heavy impression on all his work. Jacobean fire and brimstone were his lexicon. Now he is mine.

A hostile dynasty, Borges calls us. The relationship of a text to its translator has been widely discussed; less so the passions that may arise between translators of the same text. I stand at an odd angle to my predecessors – infuriated, intimate. Produced alongside my own version of the Nights, these erasures have become a playful way of reading and working against Lane, who was a prolific eraser himself. He redacted the erotic content of the stories and filled the void with detailed annotations, an approach described by Edward Said as “the imposition of a scholarly will on an untidy reality”. Shuffled and reconstellated, the text is returned to its untidiness.

I rip the pages out before erasing them. The limited canvas of each page is a relief from my forever task, the mountain of the Nights looming. And it is pleasing, in a work set entirely in bed, to take as my unit the sheet. The finality of each page torn, no more reversible than ticking time, connects me to the frame tale’s perilous conceit: Shahrazad can’t unsay, can’t revise what she has done before. Like comedians, who are also in the business of performing while trying not to die, she sets out every night on a journey of risk. Stand-up, lying down. Like dawn, she endlessly begins and never quite finishes.

These poems arise from the belief that each page contains, latent, the whole story of the Nights, as if Shahrazad had encrypted her own life in the work and even in its translations. As if she were transmitting messages about herself in invisible ink. The gesture feels sacrilegious, but maybe the mistake is to regard the text as sacred in the first place. The Nights are not petroglyphs but a river, ever changing in the same bed. I take my cue from Borges: I think that the reader should enrich what she is reading. She should misunderstand the text. She should change it into something else.

Yasmine Seale is a writer and translator from Arabic and French. She is currently working on a new translation of The Thousand and One Nights for W.W. Norton. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:1, Spring 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author. All images ©  Yasmine Seale.