Continuing our countdown to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ArabLit talked to the brothers co-longlisted for the 2015 prize: Jabbour and Antoine Douaihy. Both have previously been longlisted for the prize:
Jona Fras: Your works have appeared on the “Arabic Booker” longlist for the second consecutive year now, The Bearer of the Purple Rose last year and Drowning in Lake Morez for the 2015 prize. How did you feel when you learnt you’ve been nominated for a second time?
AD: These are the only two novels I have published since the “Arabic Booker” has come unto the scene. My last novel before them, Crossing Over Rubble, came out in 2003.
I felt both exuberant and comforted. One realizes, at such a point, that there are those who pay attention to one’s voice, who interact to and respond with one’s literary work at a deep level – in this vast, sprawling Arab world of ours, with all its different regions and climes – that one’s word issues forth from its origins on the slope of a remote Lebanese valley to arrive to every place from the deserts of Mauritania to the shores of Oman.
JF: When did the ideas about this novel first form? When did you begin writing it? Were there any specific events or emotions that motivated you to write?
AD: I began writing this novel years ago, then stopped. Later I returned to it and completed it. This is what usually happens when I write. I let time flow by for a while, then come back. Between Crossing Over Rubble and The Bearer of the Purple Rose, ten full years passed in which I hadn’t published a single literary work – apart from ten poems that appeared once in the “Culture” section of the Beirut newspaper an-Nahar. Really, I have my own internal timing that I live by, rather than an external one. For this reason time seems to me as if it is passing and not passing at the same time. It’s difficult to explain.
What motivated me to write this novel? In the constantly flowing stream of thoughts and emotions inside you there are some things that give you pause, you feel they need to be illuminated further. There really isn’t any specific idea that I wish to promote, or a thesis that I would like to treat by means of writing a novel. I distance myself from the “literature of ideas,” and idea-aimed novels. Ideas are the simplest thing one can find in the human mind. I proceed, without necessarily aiming to, from a feeling, or a thought, or a dream, or a vision that might come to me unexpectedly.
The Bearer of the Purple Rose, for example, grew out of a sense of the loss of freedom. I was up late, by myself, at our winter home, very late at night, in the room that overlooks the orange orchard, with heavy rain falling in the darkness outside the window. A sudden fear overcame me that I’d heard unfamiliar footsteps on the stairway outside, belonging to somebody who wants to seize and abduct me for no reason.
Once I said to myself: “So you can forget her, imagine very clearly that she has drowned in the Loire. …”
As for Drowning in Lake Morez, it emerged – as far as I see it – from an inability to forget: an inability to forget one particular woman that should have been forgotten. It was a great, passionate infatuation. There were meetings, and separations, and endless joy and suffering. In and around Orleans, sometimes, long walks, hand in hand, on the banks of the enchanting river Loire. Once I said to myself: “So you can forget her, imagine very clearly that she has drowned in the Loire. Write about her drowning, with all its particular features and details. Make it so her final absence becomes rooted deep inside your soul.”
That was where the novel came from, though only some time later.
JF: Could you describe your writing process to us? Where and when do you write, and how do your literary interests coexist with your academic work?
AD: Early on, when I was fifteen, I realized very clearly that writing is my true calling. I do regret that I haven’t been able to devote my entire life to this calling, without requiring entry into any other line of work. A single lifetime isn’t enough for this kind of calling. Really, you would need several. As far as my academic work is concerned, I always attempt to carry it out the best I can; it is my job. On the other hand, it’s only work, and activities at the university. Writing, though, is something else entirely.
How do I write? As follows. From the beginning of my teenage years until today, I’ve been keeping an “internal diary.” I don’t write about external events or actions as such, but about what’s happening inside me. I don’t write every day, only from time to time. And of course I don’t record everything that’s happening internally, only those moments that I consider “illuminating.” Those moments that gleam, and burn. Not all of these either, some of them, those that can be picked up consciously. Writing, however great or powerful, is never able to gather up every single moment like this, only some of them, a bare minimum. Internal life is the entirety of existence, and when it fades away so does the universe.
Despite this, through time, the writings pile up. Writings on pieces of paper of different shapes and sizes, all of which I save. These papers are the secret well from which my literary works are drawn.
JF: You’ve completed your graduate education in France, and obtained a doctorate in Anthropology in Paris. How have this studies influenced you, do you feel the experience – with both its academic and personal aspects – has changed your understanding of the world, of life? Especially the different kinds of societies in which we live? To what extent do you consider this experience to have influenced your literary work, and especially your most recent nominated novel?
AD: As I see it, my anthropology studies in France haven’t influenced my writing directly. Rather, the influences come from the experience of living in the West. Twenty years living in Paris, and over and above this, engaging with a countless number of places and scenes and people and situations throughout Europe, all of which have found their place in the self. It’s the land of diaspora, meeting up with the land of one’s roots, deep, firm roots that produce history and heritage and identity. The two meet, and interact. Two places, one of which throws the other into a new light. This, then, deepens the knowledge and understanding of two different civilizations, two cultures, two models of life, from the inside. Similarly, it deepens the understanding of the self, the individual self as well as the social self, and of the Other, and the trajectory of one’s era. I think it’s sometimes difficult to fully understand human nature from within the borders of a single civilization.
Certainly, all this has had some influence on my literary works, including Drowning in Lake Morez.
JF: Drowning in Lake Morez is a love story that transcends the borders of two different cultures, two cultures that could also be described as separated to an extent. It seems that such subjects occupy an important place in Arabic literature, would you agree with this assessment? And how do you see the specificity of your work in this context?
AD: In truth, I don’t think this is the most important issue in contemporary Arabic novels. What preoccupies the vast majority of these works isn’t the issue of engagement and interaction between different cultures, but rather the problems of Arab societies and their internal disputes – political, social, as well as military conflicts – in addition to their historical trajectory, in this or that specific Arab country. This is only natural.
Better, perhaps, to speak about the specificity of Drowning in Lake Morez. But I would allow myself, in this respect, to point to the fact that it is a novel with a number of dimensions. A huge river, flowing along its course, with many streams that branch away and return to it, that blend with it, that feed it and enrich it with places and faces and lives and destinies.
I would like to add that this novel, as far as it approaches both of these worlds, doesn’t in any way imply any kind of “clash of civilizations” or “cultural conflict.”
Really, it is, like the publisher’s description says, “a story of love, strange and moving, at a place where two worlds and two cultures meet and separate; where the narrator dives deep into infatuation, and the secrets of the human self, and tries to enter the core of the two worlds, and throw light on the crisis of the contemporary humanity within them.”
I would like to add that this novel, as far as it approaches both of these worlds, doesn’t in any way imply any kind of “clash of civilizations” or “cultural conflict.” Rather, it’s exactly the contrary. The many different persons and places distributed over these two worlds – despite the differences and distances between them – form parts of a single aesthetic vision, humankind’s single common destiny.
What unifies the two different worlds and cultures in this novel are two major sentiments. First: an aesthetic sensibility, interacting at a deep level with the aesthetics of nature and landscape as it occurs in every place in the world – in lands of traditions and identity as well as in the diaspora. We don’t often find this kind of aesthetic interaction in the work of Arab writers who have experienced diaspora. Take the most famous of these – Gibran Khalil Gibran. He spent most of his life in the U.S. and France. We find no trace of the nature or landscapes of the West in either his books or his paintings, despite his own love of the natural world. The only natural environment that appears in his works is that of Mount Lebanon, and specifically Kadisha Valley. Such was his vision, born of his own experience and the era in which he lived, and it’s nothing to be blamed for.
In Drowning in Lake Morez, along with beauty and aesthetics, the other sensibility that makes the world fit together is compassion.
In Drowning in Lake Morez, along with beauty and aesthetics, the other sensibility that makes the world fit together is compassion. Compassion towards human beings, wherever they belong to and wherever they might be. Compassion towards humankind’s destiny. We realize in the novel that, whatever might separate people in two different worlds and cultures, it still isn’t enough to supersede their common nature and destiny – in the face of existential concerns, and love, and the passage of time, and death and fragility of the human body and all the other ravages of life.
In Drowning in Lake Morez, aesthetics and compassion are what unifies the world. The novel carries an implicit humanist and aesthetic message, and strives to transcend the conflicts and ruptures of the contemporary world, searching for new horizons.
JF: Love and death appear as two principal ideas in your nominated novel, what’s your view on their importance? Are there other ideas that are relevant or that have inspired you while your novel was being formed? And does the way in which they are treated in Drowning in Lake Morez differ from previous works, both poetry and prose?
AD: These are situations and feelings, rather than ideas. They open up worlds that are both conscious and unconscious. The themes are love and death and the contradictions of the human self, the spirit of places and nature, secrets of presence and absence and waiting and fragility, the labyrinths of time and the terrors of life and destiny.
In different forms, a single underlying outlook informs all of my literary work.
JF: Where did the novel’s characters come from? From the inside or from the outside? The main character of Drowning, for example, what was the role of your personal experiences and emotions in his depiction?
AD: My novel’s characters don’t come from outside me, but from my own internal world. I draw on persons and places that have found their place in me a while ago and in the end settled themselves there. As for the narrator of Drowning in Lake Morez: as in all of my narrative works, he is not me precisely, even though there is a lot of myself in him.
JF: You’ve spoken in a previous interview about two types of society that come together in the novel – the society of individuals and the society of groups or collectives. Have you encountered challenges in portraying the differences between the two? And does their depiction require specific literary styles, techniques?
AD: No, there are no challenges here. My personal goal isn’t necessarily the depiction of two different social models; rather I mention them and describe them through the situations that occur in the novel, and as one aspect among many which give shape to these situations and the way they develop.
Jona Fras is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh currently conducting research on colloquial Arabic and radio in Jordan. His musings on this can be found on his blog (https://areluctantarabist.wordpress.com/) and occasionally on Twitter (@jonafras).
From last year: