Mohga Hassib was able to spend some time with acclaimed Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury before his talk at the American University in Cairo this week.
Mohga Hassib: J.M. Coetzee has said that writing about torture is particularly difficult, and that one is caught between ignoring it and reproducing it, thus further terrorizing people. (More here.) You have also, of course, spent a great deal of time thinking about torture. What dangers do you think the author faces here? Is it different from writing about other violence?
Elias Khoury: I don’t agree with Coetzee, although Coetzee is a great writer and I admire him. I don’t agree with this concept because in my personal experience, while writing Yalo, I was not reproducing torture. I was tortured myself, I felt torture itself on my body and on my soul. If you put read Yalo in its own context — it is a novel about writing a novel — Yalo was taken to jail, he was obliged by his interrogators to write his life story so he wrote his life story 7 times and the novel is the outcome of what he has written.
Writing and re-writing is a kind of going through the deepest parts of the human soul which can be a parallel to torture. Torture in Yalo was part of a research and was published 10 years ago, 2002, and I had to go through a long research about the techniques of torture which now are becoming offered during the Arab revolutions, now everybody speaks about them, but that moment it was something really new and it was a real investigation to show people what we are going through under dictatorships and under despotism. Now the same mechanism — if writing is a kind of rewriting which all writers got through — is parallel to this feeling of torture in our souls but it is also a kind of healing to our souls.
Actually Yalo’s approach towards writing will finish by him writing this book. I didn’t write this book I only put my name as a writer because there must be a writer for it. But actually he wrote the book and writing for him was a kind of healing his soul. It is the same mechanism, which is: Writing is a mechanism of resistance, a mechanism against torture. It is much more complicated than our friend Coetzee said.
EK: It is dangerous for the writer to write about anything. I think it is more dangerous to write about love. I remember when I was writing Gate of the Sun or when I was writing As Though She Were Sleeping, I really fell in love with a woman in the novel and for me it was really love, it was not a joke. If you do not believe in your character nobody will take them seriously. So falling in love with a woman that never existed was more dangerous than anything else. And in this sense writing is a very world, it is not a word, it is a way of life it is accepting that you as a human being is an agent of writing and that you as a human being accept the fact that your existence will be covered, totally shadowed by the existence of your character.
If you write a good novel, people will forget you and remember the characters of your novels. And if you write a bad novel anyway they forget everything. Your destiny as a writer is to be forgotten. In this sense it is a very dangerous job, a very dangerous work. Yalo was a testimony against torture and for me it was dangerous because in the sense that I went also through these things, through this horror and I had to stop writing for several times, I couldn’t continue. But at the end, I saw it was worth it because I was giving a very special testimony about the situation in my country and in the Arab world.
MH: Do you find writing from memory to be more difficult than creation from scratch, more difficult than the creation of fiction?
EK: Writing is a combination of memory and imagination, there is no pure memory. I ask about your childhood and you are sitting with your sister or brother and you try to remember the same event, every one of you will remember it in a different way. So actually memory is an act of imagination, and imagination is an act of memory, and this is the combination of writing. When I write I do not write about myself, I do not think I am worth writing about. My life story is a very simple, and I wonder how many writers write their autobiography. I do not have anything to write about; I write about others. Writing is a kind of investigation of others and investigating their memory, their imagination, and then when the character, which is an imaginary character exists, then it becomes so real that you as a writer have to listen to the character to communicate with him or her and to understand through his or her life and to see things with new eyes.
MH: Earlier, you said that while writing Yalo you learned that a writer must become multiple people in order to avoid disappearance. Can you explain that a bit more?
EK: Being a human being makes you multiple. Everybody is a multiple person. The frame we are in makes us take the shape of one person. In writing you are obliged to show up all these multiple levels or layers of your personality because you are dealing with different persons. I write about only characters in my life whom I love. For me, writing is an act of love even if the character is a bad one. I do not think any character is a bad character – everybody has many layers. If you take Yalo himself, I started writing about him thinking he is a bad person. Then I finished by falling in love with him and becoming friends with him. There are different layers and different approaches, and at the end, love and communication shows us that all the aspects of our human experience are worth writing and worth telling. In this sense I do not make moral statements in my writing; I make human statements.
MH: Does having a female narrator (as in Ka’anaha Naima) change your writing process at all?
Milia is not the narrator, she is the main character and narration goes through her. Writing through her and entering her interior life, mainly entering her dreams, her way of seeing life as a combination of dreams and reality, and a way of seeing reality as a prolongation of dreams — not the contrary — changed a lot in me. Because, first of all, she obliged me to remember my dreams. Normally, we do not remember our dreams, we remember the last phase of our sleeping. One remembers his or her dreams, then he or she realizes that we are living something very profound. Then you understand how this combination leads us to understand that death as a continuation of our dreams.
Mohga Hassib is an English and Comparative Literature graduate student at American University in Cairo. She has been president of the university’s literature club since fall 2011.
Mary Mourad on EK’s talk at the AUC: Elias Khoury on Understanding Events Through Children’s Eyes
From ArabLit last fall: Elias Khoury on Why the Greatest Authors are Invisible