Elias Khoury: A Writer’s Journey

Elias Khoury spoke to an audience at Queens College in NY, USA, as part of a symposium on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 entitled “Celebrating the Literature of the Middle East.”  Jennifer Sears shares her impressions in two separate posts. The first was on the process and politics of literary translation.This is the second.

By Jennifer Sears

Photo courtesy Katrina Weber Ashour.

Sinan Antoon introduced Elias Khoury, crediting him as being one of the intellectuals who originally exposed brutal regimes in Iraq and Syria through his work as both a journalist and fiction writer.  Antoon offered his experience of seeing Khoury read at Georgetown with two other writers who spoke about the suffering they believed was required to produce their art. Khoury refused to speak of suffering during the same week Palestinians were dying in Jenin.  In Antoon’s view, this sensibility emerges in Khoury’s fiction through his concern for those marginalized by life and his ability to evoke heroes who are “non-heroes,” resulting in stories that themselves become main characters.

Khoury began his address stating he wanted to speak to us as a reader rather than as a writer. In his view,  reading and writing must be united throughout the writing process.  A successful writer, in Khoury’s view, enables the reader to feel actively involved in creating the text.  He invoked the traditional pattern for beginning a story in ancient Arabic literature: Kan ya ma kan, translating it as either “It was told,” “there was,” or, “there was not…”  From there, a writer or storyteller makes choices.  A writer might tell a story as if it has already been told or perhaps, evoke the story of a journey.  Without the narration of a journey, he added, there is no journey.

Khoury suggested a writer must also understand the nature of “duality” in the writing process.  Drawing on the example of the narrator Scheherazade in A Thousand Nights and One Night who simultaneously plays the role of partner, narrator, and shadow and tells stories in order to save her life, Khoury believes relaying stories demands that a writer take on many roles, and like Scheherazade, a writer must commit to the telling. His writing stems from his being born into a generation of people shaped by the disaster of the war in 1948.  His “journey” as a writer began before the civil war in Lebanon and even before he began writing.

Four Challenges for the Writer

Little Mountain, trans. Maia Tabet.

Khoury first sought a way to effectively narrate the immediate present, in particular the immediacy of wartime.  When the civil war in Lebanon began, Khoury searched for literary accounts about previous wartime in Lebanon and found that literature left out or hid this reality.  Nothing conveyed the immediate experience of war. Seeing this void, Khoury aimed to create an accurate portrayal of wartime.  He wrote his first book Little Mountain while fighting in the civil war.  This desire to accurately convey the immediate experience of living inside a civil war, he believes, contributed to what Edward Said identified as “postmodern” in his written introduction to the work.  Before he read the introduction, Khoury claimed he hadn’t heard the literary term.

Secondly, Khoury challenged the concept of an all-knowing narrator.  Naguib Mahfouz mastered the natural or realistic novel in which the narrator knows everything.  Khoury wanted to explore a narrative conveyed by a narrator who “knows nothing.” This effort led to his creating multiple narratives within the same novel.

Third, Khoury wanted to explore through his work how Arabic language might be liberated.  Ever respectful of writing in a modern language that emerged from an ancient language, one with a sacred root, Khoury believed the language’s long history and evolution had become both its beauty and burden.  He knew the language needed a change and sought to create a link between spoken dialects and written forms of Arabic.  This innovation stemmed organically from his desire to express the immediate present and allowed him to incorporate multiple narratives within the same work.

A fourth challenge for Khoury was feminizing language and, subsequently, feminizing imagination.  Khoury believes literature differs from religion in that literature has the potential to be feminine.   He wanted to explore a way to liberate and feminize Arabic language through narrative. Doing this also enabled him to move beyond the scripted tropes of “orientalization” expected in Arabic literature.  Falling prey to expectations and giving readers something they’ve already had results in orientalism.  To avoid this, Khoury believes, writers must write what uniquely exists for him or her to write.

The  Writer Becomes Reader and Witness of His Own Work

Mirroring these four observations, Khoury offered four stories from his own life that affected his writing process and that illustrate how a writer ultimately must be a receptor of his or her own work.

White Masks, trans. Maia Tabet.

The first event occurred after he’d published White Masks.  While Khoury was working in his newspaper office in Beirut, a colleague informed him he’d just seen one of the characters from Khoury’s novel in a nearby square.   Khoury suspected his friend was teasing him, but when they went to the square, he saw his character, a painter, wearing the same coat and hat, carrying the same bucket, even creating the same painting described in Khoury’s novel. When Khoury approached the man, he refused to reply.  Taking a turn on the idea that art imitates life, a receptive writer must be able to witness his own work, understanding that life can imitate art.

Gate of the Sun, trans. Humphrey Davies.

Khoury offered a second story that occurred after the publication of his Gate of the Sun, a novel that explores the lives directly affected by the Nakba of 1948.  Khoury was invited to a refugee camp to discuss his work and a man approached him, claiming angrily that he had no right to use the story of his uncle in his book.  As Khoury listened the man, he determined the uncle’s story was not in his novel.  The man’s confusion, Khoury believes, was the best compliment because an honest work of literature opens the reader enough to feel as if he or she has written or experienced the described events.

Third, Khoury’s own character, Yalo, taught him that a writer must be divided in two.  In that work, Yalo is forced to write his life story seven times while in prison.  In doing this, Yalo, and Khoury as writer, had to imagine himself in the dual roles of the tortured and the torturer, a hero and non-hero.  Khoury learned a writer must become multiple people in order to avoid disappearance

As Though She Were Sleeping, trans. in this edition Humphrey Davies.

Finally in his most recently translated work, As Though She Were Sleeping, Khoury’s main character escapes the difficulty of her waking reality by sleeping and living within her dreams.  In the act of creating this work, Khoury too began to remember his dreams and realized he was living many dreams.  Dreams have an inherent duality, real and unreal, they are simultaneously beautiful and tragic.

Khoury finished his address by citing again the opening of traditional Arabic literature:  there was…there was not and… “It is told.”  As the listener or reader of traditional Arabic literature is expected to participate in the creative process of the story, a writer or teller of the story must be receptive as reader.  For Khoury, the dual role of the writer as reader is essential to creating work.

Writing is Waiting

In response to a question writers are frequently asked about his writing process, Khoury obligingly said he works every day in the morning, that writing is a long process that requires, at times, living in other places, and that writing is waiting.   Writers must wait, he said, trusting that “things will come.”  For Khoury, rewriting is the most painful and most important aspect of writing.

In response to a question of how to read Gate of the Sun, Khoury admitted: “I was lost!” In the writing of the novel, he got lost all of the time when he was writing the work, echoing his earlier suggestion that he writes from a place of “not knowing.” Trusting the process, his initial idea was to write a love story between the main character and his wife, but in writing a love story between these characters at that time, he had to reproduce the context of their relationship and ended up writing about the Nakba.  He continued by stating that when he began collecting these stories in the refugee camps, women and children refused to speak, having been forced to witness events they believed to be unspeakable.  But after one local woman accepted him, others came offering their stories.  People of all circumstances recognize there is no journey without narration. People understand the importance of stories to avoid disappearance.

Khoury said that as any journey contains elements of danger, the process of writing is dangerous.  Whatever takes place in the work affects the writer.  Khoury believes writers must understand this process and write receptively, as a reader.  The writer must disappear in his or her work and allow discoveries to organically emerge.  A true writer can’t be afraid or produce work he or she doesn’t believe in.  Referring again to his first book Little Mountain, Khoury stated he became a writer when the civil war he once believed in failed.  White Masks was practically banned by the PLO although he was a member.  Two years later, the same people embraced it.

Khoury urged writers to trust where their writing takes them and to commit to their own words.

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