Narrative and Palestine, Narrative vs. Palestine

Selma, borrowed from English PEN.

Yesterday afternoon, I met with Palestinian-British novelist Selma Dabbagh, following her trip to Gaza with the 2012 Palestine Festival of Literature.

Dabbagh’s debut novel Out of It (BQFP 2011, US edition forthcoming) is partially set in — and always anchored to — Gaza. Dabbagh had visited Gaza before this trip, she said, but in the more optimistic nineties. So to write her book, she’d spent a lot of time with Gazan memoirs, blogs, and documentaries.

Dabbagh felt she had to anchor the book there, she said, because her project needed the “extremity” of the Gazan experience.

She did have anxiety about her choice. “I really blocked myself up for a long time,” she said. “Who am I to write this book?”

There is something about this “who am I?” anxiety that could be applied to any narrative. But, in writing in Palestine’s contested space(s), narrative anxiety seems to grow particularly clamorous. Ibrahim Nasrallah spoke about a similar feeling at this year’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

Dabbagh said: “people feel that if you get the [Palestinian] narrative clear and right, then something’s going to change for the better. Therefore you’ve got a duty to get it right.”

Dabbagh said that, when writing Out of It, she wanted “to make sure that I’ve done it responsibly,” which is certainly a good impulse. I don’t think I’d want to advocate irresponsible books.In any case, they apparently don’t need my advocacy, as there are quite enough of them.

But there’s also something slightly suffocating, both for Palestine and for authors, about this spoken/unspoken requirement that a narrative get things so very “right”. For Dabbagh, she said that her outsider status helped her escape this, at least to some extent.

So: Here’s to writers inside Gaza who can shake off the need to get the narrative exactly “right,” who can write what’s in front of them, what comes to the pen most urgently and beautifully.


Much more from Dabbagh on craft, naming characters, Gaza, and other things once I transcribe the interview.

The first of two blogs she wrote for English PEN about the Palestine Festival of Literature. I believe she turned the second in, but they seem not to have posted it yet.

Dabbagh’s website and Twitter account: @SelmaDabbagh