In the Paris Review, translator-scholar Robyn Creswell talks with novelist (scholar, essayist, activist) Elias Khoury about his life and the role of literature within it:
Khoury, who is a charming conversant in any setting, studied social history, and wrote his thesis on the Mount Lebanon civil war. Interestingly, although his work is obsessed with violence and memory, he says he is not interested in memory “as such”:
I’m not interested in memory as such, I’m interested in the present. But to have a present, you have to know which things to forget and which things to remember. Our lack of written history made me feel that I didn’t even know the country I grew up in. I didn’t know my place in it. I don’t think I made any great discoveries as a historian, but when I began writing novels, a few years later, I found that I wanted to write the present—the present of our own civil war.
Of course, Creswell asked what it means to write the present:
It means you have to name things as they really are. I remember Emile Habibi, the great Palestinian novelist, once said to me, How dare you give the characters of your novels Christian or Muslim names? Habibi was a Christian like me, of course. I said to him, But that’s the way our society is. You know that we can often tell a person by their name. And he said, You should give them neutral names. It’s what I do. So I said, Your own name isn’t neutral, it’s Emile! Are you going to change that?