How Stories Can Transcend Author, Culture, and History
Part Five of “The Worlds of Scheherazade”
Building on Lit Hub’s five-part Finnegan and Friends podcast, the new season of The Cosmic Library, “The Worlds of Scheherazade,” plunges into and out of the 1,001 Nights with guests Katy Waldman, critic at The New Yorker; Yasmine Seale, translator of the 1,001 Nights; Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist; Mazen Naous, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Hearty White, host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU.
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The 1,001 Nights are not typically about conclusions, but about the suggestion of more stories, more information passed from person to person, language to language. In this, the last episode of this season, Mazen Naous—a scholar whose specialties include the Nights—points out the implication of the phrase “thousand and one nights”: “There’s always one more story, always one more story to be told, the stories have no beginning and no end. That’s partly why the Nights still inspire rewrites and reinventions and adaptations to this day.”
“I think the book doesn’t end,” says Yasmine Seale, translator of the Nights, here. “The force of this work, and what’s so strange and uncomfortable about it, is that it’s a book without an end, without resolution, without conclusion.”
That openness makes the Nights a work in which you can ramble and find, maybe, anything. Hearty White, of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU, compares such reading to other sorts of study: “When you’re talking about Bible stories, you’re not talking about Bible stories at all. It’s an excuse to talk about other things. It’s just a jumping off point. And so what you do is go into excruciating minutiae as a way of opening up—it’s a key, and you use it to open up a tangent, and that tangent takes you to marvelous places. And then I found out you can literally do it with almost anything that’s complicated . . . And you just descend, infinitely, in between the words.”
The Nights were compiled in a way that supports this kind of reading, this kind of thinking. They’ve been added to, changed, adapted in ways that obliterate any straightforward authenticity or moral simplicity. Reading the Nights, then—and talking about the Nights—means accepting something challenging: stories can exceed easy notions of an author, or a culture, or even history. Stories can, in short, let you participate in experiences far beyond them.
Yasmine Seale is a translator of 1,001 Nights. Her translation of Aladdin was published in 2018 by Liveright, and her translation of other stories from the Nights are in the new Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights also from Liveright.
Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS is a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Surrey. He is the author of twelve books, including The House of Wisdom.
Hearty White is host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU—a radio show of inspirational dada.
Katy Waldman is a critic at The New Yorker, where you can find her writings on books, TV, and more.
Mazen Naous is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He translates from Arabic, works on music and literature, and the 1,001 Nights are one of his areas of specialty.