Dima Wannous’s The Frightened is on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist. Wannous spoke with ArabLit’s Hend Saeed about the novel, being translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and scheduled for a 2019 English release:
By Hend Saeed
Syrian author Dima Wannous was born in 1982 and studied French literature, first at Damascus University and then the Sorbonne. Her short-story collection, Details, was published in 2007 and was later translated into German. Her first novel, Chair, followed a year later, in 2008. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as Al Safir, Al Hayat, The Washington Post, and Jadaliyya, managed the cultural section of the e-magazine Moodon between 2012-2014 and currently presents a cultural television show.
This year, Wannous participated in two sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature: “Lessons from the Levant,” with author and former UK Ambassador to Lebanon Thomas Fletcher and author and director of Oxford’s Middle East Center Eugene Rogan, and “Contemporary Arabic Literature in the West” with Syrian author Khaled Khalifa, Palestinian author Ibrahim Nasrallah, and Egyptian author Youssef Rakha.
Hend Saeed: The Frightened is one among the six novels that are shortlisted for 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF); what does that mean to you?
Dima Wannous: I was so happy when it was longlisted in the first place, and then when it made the shortlist. I think IPAF is a very important prize, and what’s important isn’t necessarily wining the prize — just reaching the shortlist will encourage people to read the novel, and it’s very important to me that people in the Arab world read this book, especially those nations that are going through crisis, and each of us has their own crisis, so it’s very important to me to have this book read by the Arabic reader.
HS: Do you think that Arab readers don’t read enough, particularly among those novels that don’t reach the IPAF list?
DW: I am so sorry to say that we, in general, have been nations that don’t read, and I am one of those people who doesn’t read.
When I was young — and maybe because I didn’t have political awareness, because my parents protected me and kept me away and unaware of what was happening as much as they could — I used to read more. My mind wasn’t occupied with other issues, the general issues of my country and my people, the people I’m from. I think people’s minds are occupied with such issues.
In the past, people ran away from reality to books, and that’d what saved their humanity, because reading introduces people to different worlds and people and gives them knowledge, while today people run away from reality to social media, which I think is very dangerous.
HS: Your father Saadallah Wannous was an internationally known playwright. Did that reflect or effect your writing or your life in general?
DW: Yes, a lot. I am the only child, and my parents put all their energy into me. My father loved reading — he wasn’t social, although he has friends, a lot of friends, but he used to spend most of his time reading.
He forced me to read from a young age, books that are for older people. I was reading books above my age, but I have benefited from that and became more knowledgeable and increased my awareness and this protected me, because knowledge can protect you.
HS: In The Frightened, you talk about “the fear of fear.” You also said writing is either a fantasy or nightmare — where this fear come from?
DW: The revolution broke the wall of fear, although maybe it didn’t destroy it totally. The fear was from everything — the regime, power, military, and even people – they use to be afraid of each other, suspicious of each other. The revolution isn’t only against the regime, but against anything that creates fear.
I grew up on fear, and my generation was a scared generation. My generation has memories of the Homs massacres, and around 50 to 100,000 people were dead or missing. Some are missing still today, and their families are still looking for them.
There was no way to run away from fear, even in school, they taught you about the Baath Party and the revolution and how you have to be loyal to the leader and not the country.
HS: Where did the idea for The Frightened come from, especially when you talk about the psychological side, which hasn’t been a common subject to discuss in the Arabic novel?
DW: Yes exactly, a number of people from my surroundings lived the experience of going to a therapist or psychiatrist, and we know the shame of confessing that you need a mental or psychological help. Even the people who go to one don’t talk about it.
That’s why I wanted to have the main character as a psychiatrist and all the events are around him.
I worked on the idea of fear because people in Syria — or any other country that’s under such a regime — are not only afraid of the regime, they are afraid of being afraid. It’s a condition that precedes the fear, meaning people are afraid because they are going to be afraid, and I worked from that point.
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translator, life consultant, and book reviewer.