Time Out  , October 2011
‘It’s such a tough life out there for cultural producers,’ says Yasmina Jraissati. As a young literary agent going it alone selling translation rights for Arabic fiction during strange times for book markets everywhere, she should know. But more significantly, that she should stick to her guns hints at an extraordinary commitment to her authors and the worlds that they come from.
She founded Raya Agency for Arabic Literature eight years ago. After long internships in publishing houses in New York and Paris, Jraissati realised at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair that ‘publishers interested in the Arab world couldn’t get their hands on interesting books because they can’t read them.’ Surely they often simply don’t want to, I say. She laughs. ‘That’s the other part of the story. I wanted them to be interested, so I had a mission… you can’t be interested if you don’t know anything about it, so I wanted to be some sort of medium.’
Over the course of the agency’s development, Jraissati has developed a sensitive radar for the needs of publishers, and how these fluctuate with broader developments in the industry. The financial crisis, the rise of ebooks and the plight of bookshops in the English-speaking world means that today Jraissati is finding publishers in other languages to be more adventurous. The good news is that she has more and more to sell, and works with a team of co-agents worldwide. ‘Now authors find me, when I used to read their books and look for them… this is a sign.’
She takes pride, too, in the relationships that she has built up with publishers. ‘I read all the books, if I didn’t I would just be a sales rep, and this is why I am interesting to them, because they get to know me, my tastes.’ I ask her what she is reading now, and she grins. ‘Philip Roth… it’s important [to read outside of my work] both for my mental health and for professional reasons as well, because when you meet publishers and they talk about books you can’t be completely ignorant.’
And after everything, does she look to the future with optimism? ‘There are good books out there. I do see more people taking risks, so yes, I am optimistic.’