“Clarity is a crime,” Mahmoud Darwish once wrote, in his “Leaving the Mediterranean Coast.” This line of poetry was quoted by Egyptian novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere when he declined to explain aspects of his International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel Embrace at the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011:
But, at two events hosted by gifted and acclaimed writers at this year’s Abu Dhabi International, a new clarity was instead hailed as a virtue.
On the opening day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha spoke alongside Swedish authors Majgull Axelsson and Marie Hermanson on the topic of truth and moving between journalism and fiction. Axelsson and Hermanson both spoke about getting “free” of journalism, while Rakha talked instead about writing as a broad craft, saying that the carpenter should be able to make not only chairs, but other objects as well.
Journalism had had a positive effect on his writing, Rakha said, as it trained the writer not just to be able to produce for a deadline, but to be accessible and understandable. He noted that Arab writers “in the sixties wrote very beautiful things, but they weren’t very accessible.”
Clarity was also a watchword at the news conference that followed the announcement of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Winning author Ahmed Saadawi was asked, at the Tuesday-evening gathering, about the writerly path he had forged. A questioner wondered why his book was light on the metaphor and flowery language.
Saadawi said that he preferred simple words. “I think that this is very important. It’s well-known that the creation of a text should come with a certain simplicity. I think the sentence should be able to convey the message clearly.”
In a 2010 interview with Sousan Hammad, Saadawi had said that – although he began as a painter and caricaturist – he grew disaffected with the direction both of Iraqi fine art and of Iraqi poetry, as “the direction painting was taking in Iraq the last two decades leaned more towards abstract drawing, which makes me depressed. Painters and poets ran away from reality. The culture was hiding behind the clouds, away from the authorities and its intelligence services.”
It was perhaps for different reasons that Rakha talked about the contrast between the work of Arab writers in the 1960s and those shaped by journalism, which “trains you to be accessible and understandable.”
Certainly, accessibility was not the only thing: “I think the challenge for serious writers is to be articulate and accessible, not the other way around.”
At the Tuesday-evening press conference, Saadawi said, on a similar note, that individual sentences “shouldn’t distract a reader from the content” but “at the same time should be very expressive.”
Perhaps taking journalism more seriously as an endeavor has had an impact on some Arab writers. Not that journalism is a new field for fiction writers: In the previous generation, Rakha said, “a lot of Arab journalists were kind of fiction writers in disguise.” But “they didn’t do a very good job at journalism, they didn’t take it seriously.” Whereas Rakha, on the other hand, says he has taken the journalistic craft more seriously, and that this expanded back into his creative writing.
“I was using the tools of journalism,” he said, “to do more personal, subjective accounts of places. And that kind of led me, eventually, back into fiction.”
Although Axelsson and Hermanson seemed to draw hard distinctions between journalism and fiction, Rakha did not, saying that “in the Arabic tradition, you never had genres. The books would be compendium, always. They would include narratives, essays, and poetry. …and I found a lot of inspiration from that.”
“A writer is someone who’s a collector of curiosities, almost.”
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