The Illusions of Intimacy and Reading ‘Other Lives’

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt myself burrow as deeply inside a character as I did inside Myriam, the narrator of Iman Humaydan’s Other Lives, translated into English by Michelle Hartman and recently released by Interlink:

otherlivesAs I began reading, I felt the narrator’s emotions as my own: her longing for a place that isn’t quite a longing for place, but rather “for what’s inside myself that I’m losing every day, for what I lose while I’m away.” The narrator’s in-between-ness, her reaching toward something that is always receding.

Much of this is Humaydan’s excellent character-creation. This doesn’t just go for Myriam, who is forever caught in a space that isn’t home, but also for her work-focused English husband, who married her because she is so unlike his family, and for her lover Nour, who went to Lebanon to search for his “roots.” There is also Myriam’s silent mother, her domineering grandmother, her unbalanced father — a whole constellation that moves around the narrator.

Even more importantly, Myriam is surrounded by the other lives that might have been: the life that would’ve been if her mother had not told them to stay home and her brother Baha’ had not been killed; the life that would’ve been if a lentil-sized piece of shrapnel had not entered her father’s brain; the life that would’ve been if they hadn’t left Lebanon for Australia; the life that might’ve been if her lover Georges had not disappeared. These other lives are as tangible — or moreso — than the “real” characters who live around her.

All this led me to feel, as strange as it might sound, that the novel had been written about me.

All this led me to feel, as strange as it might sound, that the novel had been written about me.

In her “Translator’s Note,” Hartman writes about her own “intimacy with the text,” both in a Spivakian and a personal sense. On first pass, Hartman writes, this seemed to be not just the “easiest I have translated, but the best work I had ever produced.” Yet on reworking the translation, she found it “as painfully difficult as translation can be.”

The translator writes of being close to the text and yet “inevitably distant.”

Indeed, on re-reading this novel — and even on re-thinking my initial reactions — the inevitable distances also visit me: This is not a novel about me, Marcia, but about Myriam, and about Myriam’s very particularly Lebanese alienation. In one wonderful scene, Myriam is reunited with friends she hasn’t seen for years, and they — this is 1996, just six years after Lebanon’s civil war has “ended” — argue with one another over whether the war is over, whether it’s possible to move on, whether one should remember or forget.

Remembering and forgetting are at the heart of the novel. Which is “better”? For Myriam and for Lebanon? Myriam reflects that perhaps her friend Olga “is right, what use is memory? A wave from inside the sea should rise up and cleanse everything, wash away the tales from the past…its stories, hatreds, and resentment.” And yet, without memory, who are we?

Other Lives also resonates, personally, because it is a self-consciously female narrative, spiraling instead of moving in a straight line — much like Elias Khoury’s female-centric As Though She Were Sleeping. Myriam, as narrator, says that she cannot tell stories in a direct line, as her British husband or her Lebanese-American lover would, but that “my memories always spiral when I narrate them. I begin with a story and find myself returning to it.”

There is no reason that I as a North American shouldn’t be able to feel that I am Myriam, a Lebanese woman in Australia, and then Kenya, and then Lebanon again.

There is no reason that I as a North American shouldn’t be able to feel that I am Myriam, a Lebanese woman in Australia, and then Kenya, and then Lebanon again. As Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf said in a recent interview, he writes about the alientation of being a Palestinian in Lebanon, and then forced into another exile in Iceland. And yet “the feeling of alienation or the feeling of being the foreigner or stranger or being the refugee — it has many ways to happen. Some individuals have the land, have everything, but they still feel like strangers.”

There were certainly moments I was happy to have Myriam be not-me, particularly when we’re inside her life in Kenya, and she is alienated from all but her Austrian neighbor. There, she looks down on the “simple and harsh” lives of working-class Kenyans.

Still, for most of the book — at least on the first read — Myriam could’ve been me. This is despite Hartman’s attempt not to overly familiarize the text. She notes that she tried to “create a balance in the novel between a smooth or easily readable text and a text that continually reminds the reader that it was not originally written in English.”

This signals another important reminder: Myriam’s story is not my story, nor anyone else’s besides Myriam’s.

This signals another important reminder: Myriam’s story is not my story, nor anyone else’s besides Myriam’s. We should connect with Myriam and look through her eyes as though they were our own (and scratch the bumps on her arms as though they were our own, and readjust the necks of our shirts). And yet she is not us, and there is a loss in reading the text too closely, in not stepping back to see that this is Myriam’s life before it is anything else.

Read an excerpt:

From The Missing Slate

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