Continuing our series of profiles on International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-longlisted novelists and their books, contributor Mahmoud Mostafa talks to Egyptian civil engineer and longlisted novelist Hisham al-Khashin:
By Mahmoud Mostafa
Graphite takes place in Egypt during the 1920s, a tumultuous time that saw both the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the birth of the Egyptian women’s movement. The story focuses on Nawal, an artist struggling to be free within an oppressive, and increasingly reactionary, society. Her life changes when she meets Doria Shafik, a historical figure known for being one of the leaders of Egypt’s women’s liberation movement.
Mahmoud Mostafa: How do you feel about being longlisted for the IPAF?
Hisham al-Khashin: Very ecstatic! What do you expect? I’m extremely happy and I feel quite accomplished and proud to be nominated for the prize.
MM: Events in your longlisted novel, Graphite, take place in between 1920s and 1950s. Why this era?
HK: You don’t choose the novel, the novel chooses you. The idea started not with me wanting to write a novel, but with interest in the era, which sprang up following readings in this specific period. There was a piece of information that stood out: In the year 1928, Egyptian government sent 12 girls to complete their study abroad in France and England’s universities. That was a society that lives a progressive phase and it was the year 1928 — that was the trigger for me.
MM: Does the conflict revealed in Graphite reflect on reality in our present-day society?
HK: Internal societal conflicts are natural; every society lives a continuous struggle between progressiveness and conservatism and a victory for one of the side is always temporary as the struggle resumes.
HK: I have a license to take a historical character and add to it, but I think this is not fair. Out of transparency, I kept those characters as they are, even to smallest details. Like the scene where Doria is on the ship: I didn’t add details of which I’m not sure.
I can create my own fictional characters but I cannot create actions of real characters. I was also very careful to not to attack the Muslim Brotherhood as I didn’t want the novel to be a part of conflict with the Brotherhood. I didn’t add information about them unless from their own sources.
MM: Women in your novel range from Nawal, who travels to study abroad, to her cousin Baheega, who marries a teacher who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. Are they really different?
HK: Actually there are similarities between the two characters, such as submitting to grandmothers’ wishes and that the two accept what they are instructed to do. Even Nawal was willing to give up on her dream.
MM: How do you put colors to your characters and how does that show in Graphite?
HK: One of the things I like most about my characters is that they are grey; we are all grey. They are grey because I wanted them to be real. If I created very righteous characters or very wrong characters, readers would not believe them.
In Graphite, I wanted the reader by the third quarter of the novel to feel that Nawal, (the central character in the novel) is weak and to question that weakness, then to create sympathy.
MM: As your novel tackles women and their struggles, what do you think of female novelists nominated for the IPAF?
HK: I read Jana Al-Hassan’s novel (Floor 99) and I believe she will make the shortlist.
Mahmoud Mostafa is a Cairo-based journalist who works for Daily News Egypt.
IPAF organizers also conducted a very brief interview with al-Khishn, which can be found on their website.