Sinaan Antoon on Linearity in Fiction and the Role of the Writer

On The Electronic Intifada, Dina Omar has a very interesting interview this week with poet-novelist Sinaan Antoon.

Antoon talks about his first novel I’jaam, which is not linear. He says:

In poetry, what I love is the ability to fuse the tenses and various modes of time in one sentence. But it’s something that I notice after writing and not something I plan. Linearity breeds boredom and monotony. One last thing: it is a common myth. We don’t even think of our lives or remember them in a linear fashion. Linearity is the mind’s attempt to impose some logic and order on this random and senseless existence!

And, on the role of the writer:

The role of the writer is to write well and to write beautifully, but also to be responsible and write what is relevant to his or her society and the world. I don’t think my position has changed that much. I think of myself as a global citizen; wherever I happen to be I will try to be critical and maintain a distance, a critical distance, but to go back to writing well. Mahmoud Darwish, my favorite poet, said that “every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.” So it’s no use having the right politics, but not satisfying the aesthetic challenge.

Antoon says that his “favorite” poet is Mahmoud Darwish. Omar asks him how he’s respond “to critics who claim Darwish was a womanizer, reclusive and elitist rather than a ‘man of the people’ and should not be held in such high regard?”

I mean if we stop appreciating writers and artists who were racist, sexist, elitist, etc., we will stop reading. He was not a perfect human, or a saint. Better have an asshole who writes beautiful poetry than have an upright person who produces half-ass shit. I think about that a lot, especially with Darwish, but he is a tragic figure. He came to represent so much that people’s expectations of him are mythical. He was very shy and fragile; being reclusive is good for writing poetry! Mark Twain said that “society and family are the enemies of the artist”!

And finally, about the novel Antoon is currently working on:

The novel is about the son of a traditional body-washer and shrouder in Baghdad who rebels against his father and wants to be an artist and to move away from death, so he studies art at the academy and tries to forge his own path. In the 1990s and under the sanctions, he can only work painting houses and there isn’t much space for art amid all the destruction. In this last war his father dies and to make money he is forced to do the very same work he tried to run away from his whole life. He washes and shrouds so many corpses every day that he is traumatized and starts to have nightmares and is totally drained. So much of the novel is ruminations about life and death and how one and if one can ever come to terms with all this death. He tries to leave to Jordan, but is denied entry and has to keep on washing the dead. The new poems are all about the underworld and severed heads.