‘The Writer’s Language is the Language of Self, Or It Is Nothing’

The blogger Mayyasi asked novelist Antoine Douaihy, longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his The Bearer of the Purple Rose, about his philosophy of writing, his novel’s narrative voice, and how he feels about being longlisted for the IPAF.

Antoine Douaihy
Antoine Douaihy

Mayyasi: In two lines, who is Antoine Douaihy?

Antoine Douaihy: I am a writer from Lebanon. I realised from a young age being a writer was my calling. I was and still am obsessed with “absolute writing,” as well the major emotions, the passing of time, love, absence, violence, tyranny, the fragility of the body, the wounds of the soul and nature, and death. There are two interests that I have: freedom and aesthetics.

M: The Bearer of the Purple Rose is presented through the voice of the narrator alone. How do you choose the voice of the novel and why did you choose to rely on just the one narrative voice in the book?

AD: All of my fictional and narrative works, from The Garden of Dawn (1999) to The Bearer of the Purple Rose (2013) are recounted in one voice, the voice of the narrator. I don’t want a large number of voices. Although the narrator is not necessarily me, I do identify with him a lot. My work, and this is the most significant thing, comes from my inner world. It’s a single world that this one voice speaks of. Perhaps it is saying, Is the inside large enough? Is the inner life large enough to accommodate all of these fictional worlds? As I once said, the inner life is immeasurably wider and richer than that. It’s the entire universe. When the life inside is extinguished in this Self or another, the universe is extinguished with it.

M: Do you have a pre-existing vision for a text when you write it, or do you let it come together as you write?

Despite that, the vision I have is not based on an idea that I try to address, or a subject I want to expand on. No, it emerges from an obsession, or feelings, or a dream that dominates me. 

AD: There is of course an existing vision from which the text forms, it is the text’s well-spring, the essence and compass. Despite that, the vision I have is not based on an idea that I try to address, or a subject I want to expand on. No, it emerges from an obsession, or feelings, or a dream that dominates me. Fiction writing is a long process, you can drop it and come back to it spontaneously, many things. It’s like a river to which a myriad of streams permeate in and out. The important thing is that the streams don’t stray far from from the course, leaving it to straggle. Instead they enrich it, merging deep into a single course, in a single world, a single movement and vision.

M: How do you feel about your novel being nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction?

AD: I was over the moon. Deep down though I wasn’t really surprised, I don’t know. I feel something akin to solace, and a spiritual and aesthetic fraternity because someone, some place in this vast Arab world, which is my world, reacted to The Bearer of the Purple Rose this way, and liked it and has chosen it. It is a novel about an emotional, literary, aesthetic, human path, and in some private. With the exception of The Bearer of the Purple Rose, all of my literary work was published before the Arab Booker came about.

M: Do you write for a general audience or do you have a particular group in mind when you write?

AD: In reality, I don’t think about about that at all. I don’t have any particular group of people in mind that I write for. So I don’t take those kinds of thinks into consideration, and they have no effect whatsoever on my text’s creativity. As for the details, do you mean resorting to specific details to please one group or another of readers? Either way this is not something that I think about.

M: Where do you get your ideas for characters from? Are they based on real people, made-up or a mixture of the two?

AD: The fictional characters I create come from my inner worlds. So they are in fact mostly real and not imaginary. The reader has to feel how real they are. Yet they don’t stay as they are. They keep their essence but many aspects remain open to being transformed.

M: Why do you write and is there a specific purpose for your writing? Are you targeting a specific audience or is purely for innovative purposes?

 I write because it’s my calling. I don’t target anyone in particular. The purpose of my writing is to practice an act that is aesthetic and pleasing.

AD: I write because it’s my calling. I don’t target anyone in particular. The purpose of my writing is to practice an act that is aesthetic and pleasing. I have always considered myself a witness to the life I live and to worlds I am connected to. I mean to utilize language to shed light on moments that are rich, unique, intense, and expressive of everything, an embodiment of everything. I think writing for me is in essence a reaction against death.

M: Tell us what you think of the Arabic novel in its form today? Do you think that the Arabic novel is expanding beyond its locality?

AD: There is a rich flood of Arabic fiction in novels which is widely diverse in line with the wide geographic spam of the Arab environment. The novel is the most dominating form of literature today. While I may say that the Arabic novel is going beyond its locality I cannot say it has an international recognition. There is a large gap to overcome. An institute like the Arabic Booker can take an important and affective role in publishing the novel throughout the Arab world and in supporting translating creative Arabic work into other languages. This is especially true for work that has characteristics that are both aesthetic and humane causing it to break barriers of borders and cultures and reflect the spirit of the modern era.

M: What led you to write The Bearer of the Purple Rose? Did the current events in the region influence it?

What led me to write The Bearer of the Purple Rose is a fear of losing freedom.

AD: What led me to write The Bearer of the Purple Rose is a fear of losing freedom. This fear started in me years before the current events in the region then triggered somehow with current events. This fear haunted me when I returned from Paris in the mid 1990s and intensified the beginning of the last decade.  I was haunted by the fear of the masked dictatorship which Lebanon had not witnessed before. I felt how powerful it was and how rapidly it spread. I began to wonder if there was any protection and immunity left anywhere in Lebanon which seemed back then like the whole world had left it alone. I used to stay up late in the family house surrounded by a fence and orange trees while everyone else was asleep. In the stormy nights when the harsh winds blow across the olive trees and up the mountain of Al Mukamal I would look through the big window into the scene cloaked in darkness and I would fear hearing unfamiliar footsteps on the outer steps and a knock on the door.

There was a sort of fear in the air. It is this fear that inspired The Bearer of the Purple Rose, which is about the arrest of a writer. The novel was affected by immigration and by the large political turmoil which affected the region in recent years. This is especially the case with the story’s ending and the new horizons it opens. But all of these elements come in a suggestive manner, not direct which gives it an impact that is more powerful and a deeper insight, in my opinion.

M: What makes a writer unique? What makes you unique? Is the language, the writing style or the idea and how it is processed?  

AD: To answer, I would like to go beyond those elements and ask how is Arabic literature different from other literature? Today’s world reflects literature and art in a chaotic manner unprecedented in any other era before. In my opinion the mighty literature one longs for is one that reflects the world in a new way and reflects a new world in the form a writer and those like him. This world must be unique, rich, unified and poetic in its essence. A piece of literature is not great without its uniqueness and poeticism. This applies to other literary forms as well.

I would like to add one more thing. I think what makes a work or literate or art grand is that it exists in its full form in the writer himself where a certain feeling triggers its reaction like a key. The rest is a reaction that is a formation of words and no more. I suspect there is no great literature but that. This is why in this area of creative process the works of a writer usually come as a consecutive sequence as if they were one piece of work with the same style and language. In most cases a writer’s language and writing style complement each other with no change from the beginning but one cannot generalize.

M: Does fiction occupy a large part of your life, or is it just a job like any other?

AD: I’ve done lots of jobs in my life. I specialised in French literature and taught it before I emigrated. I also became a specialist in sociology, and completed my higher education with a PhD in social and cultural anthropology, which is the science of comparative civilizations, from the University of Paris V (The Sorbonne). I have worked as a professor in this field since returning in the mid-nineties and wrote academic texts and articles on the subject. Whilst I was living in Paris — a period of twenty years — after my academic stint, I worked as an Analyst on International Relations and European Affairs for some of the expat Lebanese newspapers of the time, and published quite a few articles.

All of that comes under the umbrella of work and jobs, but writing literature is completely separate. It is my life’s calling and its aim…. And not only narrative and fictional writing, which includes the Garden of Dawn (1999), Hierarchies of Absence (2000), Royal Solitude (2001) and Crossing over Rubble (2003), and finally The Bearer of the Purple Rose (2013), but also poetry as in The Book of the Current State (1993), which contains the essence of my poetic world. You could add to that the diary of the inner life that I have given much attention since my childhood.

M: Do you keep in mind the differences between your readers, i.e. in catering to both avid and leisurely readers? In your opinion, how can a writer use simple language without it being weak or even silly?

AD: I don’t think about any of that. The writer’s language is the language of self, or it is nothing.

Mayyasi (http://www.mayyasi.ws/) is a former web developer, a blogger, translator and an editor.

Translated in part by Christopher Neil, @arabglot. Neil studied Arabic at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University, where he also did a degree in German. After that, he did an MA in Arabic Translation at Leeds University. He now works on higher education initiatives in Libya.