My apologies to translator/writer Elliott Colla, who visited Cairo a month ago now, for my borrowing* of such a large swath of his interview with Sonallah Ibrahim. The good news for Elliott is there is a great deal more interesting material about the role novels play in society, about propaganda vs. “real” literature, and about—yes—“imagination as a transitive act” over at Jadaliyya.
EC: Are you writing about the uprising these days?
SI: It is difficult to write about an significant event as it is happening. It needs time. When you’re writing about something—you might want to delve back fifty years to include background for the events.
EC: Is there such a thing as revolutionary literature?
SI: I don’t think so. There’s only two things: literature that is real and literature that is not. Real literature is not motivated by propaganda—whether on behalf of state power or against it. Real literature gives expression to people’s lives and the natural aspirations of a individual people. And this means that it necessarily runs against power. To be a real writer entails having a total image of society, history and the future. And this vision must certainly have a kind of oppositional, resistant stance toward lived reality and its limitations.
The idea that there is a revolutionary literature was over and done with by the 60s or 70s, and since then we’ve known that “revolutionary literature” means “agitprop.” Suppose someone wants to write a poem or novel about Che Guevara—a symbol of rebellion and revolution. Fine. The passing of historical time has shown that this daring character was truly able to articulate the hope and desire for change among millions of people around the globe. But at the same time, for it to be real literature, the plot would need to take into account the audacity of the character—how could Che be so out of touch with the actual conditions he acted in? He went to Bolivia accompanied by a few people and they thought they could change things across Latin America by repeating the Cuban experience in places whose historical conditions were strikingly different.
EC: What about the novel form? Since January 25, I’ve been thinking a lot about how poets write poems at the moment of rebellion, whereas novelists are there to write in the aftermath, when the dust has settled down.
SI: Right. That’s the difference between poetry and the novel. Most often, poetry reacts to a time-sensitive event. Its beauty is in being a reaction, even if it lacks a complete historical vision. But sometimes poetry is not that way at all. Take Fouad Haddad or Salah Jahin—they had the ability to give voice to ephemeral things while also giving a sense of their historical depth. They had a philosophy and vision of the future that not every poet possesses.
EC: And when we look at the novel in Egypt?
SI: A novel takes time. A novel might give expression to a complete vision of a historical period or era, or simply a person at a moment or the like—and then get into developing it. For instance, I might write a novel about a person in Midan al-Tahrir. But for that novel to be a good novel, it would have to have a firm grasp of the past, the present moment, and the future—what will happen, or what might happen afterwards. All this entails having a total vision.
Read more over at Jadaliyya: “The Imagination as a Transitive Act: An Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim.” Or in Arabic: التخييل هو فعل صناعة الخيال : حوار مع صنع الله إبراهيم
You can also read a much less interesting interview with Ibrahim on Youm7: صنع الله إبراهيم: موسى لا يصلح للرئاسة لأنه أحد رموز النظام القديم والبسطاويسى أصلح المرشحين.. السعودية تدعم السلفية فى مصر وكانت تمول الأزهر بمبالغ مالية لمحاربة الشيوعية
*It will be returned!
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