May Menassa (1939-2019): Journalist, Novelist Wrote in the Black Ink of War and Tragedy

Forthcoming in Al Jadid
Al Jadid Staff
On the left, a web-based photograph of May Menassa. On the right, artwork of Ms. Menassa by Mansour al-Haber for An Nahar.

The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) spurred the production of a vast literature. Yet only a small fraction of these books, novelsand memoirs are available in English. An even smaller portion received wide attention through reviews or publicity campaigns. This leaves a void in the English language about the literature of this war. This essay highlights one novelist’s contributions in the Arabic literature of the war as well as a brief glimpse into her life.

In 1969, May Menassa began working as a literary and music critic for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar after receiving an invitation from Ghassan Tueni, the paper’s legendary editor. She worked with the newspaper throughout her life, tallying nearly half of a century. For the past 20 years, Menassa has authored 10 novels and two children’s books, though none of her works have been translated into English.

Born July 20, 1939 in Beirut, Menassa endured a difficult life and harsh childhood. Amid the destitution of WWII, her mother struggled to make ends meet by toiling on a sewing machine late into the night. The Lebanese Civil War deeply affected Menassa, particularly the displacement of her father’s family. From then on, her writings emerged out of her own experiences as well as those who suffered around her.

Menassa’s “The Sewing Machine” (2012) was a tribute to her mother, who on her deathbed called out for her sewing machine. According to a press interview, her mother had died in a nunnery, away from her home, as bombs destroyed everything around her. As Menassa explained, “Her concern was away from the war. She asked me what I did with the sewing machine that she used to sew our clothes with. My mother died without knowing what had happened to it, and this novel brought a lot of emotion and pain to write.”

(I had been in phone contact with May Menassa in the past to secure her approval to translate and publish some of her reviews, interviews and essays in Al Jadid, and for this I will always be grateful for her kindness and generosity -- Elie Chalala)

These edited excerpts are from “May Menassa: Journalist, Novelist Wrote in the Black Ink of War and Tragedy,” a major feature essay scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.

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