‘Pay No Heed’: Talks with Palestinian Writers

Marcello Di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense came out on May 21, and it chronicles Di Cintio’s travels in historic Palestine and his conversations with Palestinian writers. Here, Di Cintio and ArabLit founding editor M. Lynx Qualey:

One of the narrative strategies I found particularly interesting in Pay No Heed was how much you leave in of your own mistakes or foibles. Your encounter with Maya Abu Alhayyat’s friend, for instance, or the non-interview with playwright Dalia Taha, or telling Ghassan Zaqtan you’re looking for politics in his poems. Not to mention the part where your translator, Lara, is sent off to make coffee. Why was it important to include these moments? 

Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti with Marcel Di Cintio

Marcello Di Cintio: Great question. The moments you mention formed part of the scene I was trying to describe, so I felt they were necessary and telling details. More than this, though, I believe that in any work of nonfiction – especially in a first-person narrative like Pay No Heed – the author is omnipresent. I am always there, and if a reader is going to spend 300 pages with me, I should do my best to be an amiable companion. Part of that is showing humility and owning the moments when I got something wrong. I am, always, an outsider. My expertise is limited. To portray myself as infallible would be dishonest. And arrogant.

This is not to say I consciously look for opportunities to self-deprecate, but I don’t resist including these “foibles” when they arrive.

In her review of the book, Selma Dabbagh says, “How the authors were selected for inclusion by Di Cintio is not always clear.” Can you talk about that? I found that to be one of my favorite parts, how it seemed you couldn’t take two steps without tripping over an author. How did you think about the book’s structure or thru narrative as you were assembling it?

MDC: I never intended this book to be a thorough exploration of the contemporary Palestinian literature. Instead, I wanted it to be an exploration of contemporary Palestinian life as seen through the lens of the literary scene. To that end, I sought out writers whose personal stories illuminated what it means to be a Palestinian today – to be a Palestinian “in the present tense.” In order to tell a more complete story I wanted to talk to Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel. I wanted to meet men and women of different generations. Urban and rural. I also wanted to find stories I hadn’t heard before, stories that didn’t adhere only to the narrative of politics, conflict and loss.

I talked to several writers that did not make it into the book. Not because they were not important or talented, but because their personal stories covered territory I’d already handled with other writers.

The book is structured both geographically and thematically – which was a bit of a departure for me as I typically write chronological travelogues. I have individual chapters about Palestinian writers living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I devote one chapter to Gazan women. I also have a chapter about books as “sacred” objects, and an opening chapter that attempts to tell the history of Palestine since the Nakba through the personal biographies of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani. I wanted to end in Gaza, though, since that was the place that affected me the most.

Were there writers you wanted to talk with, but couldn’t?

MDC: Many. Too many. I desperately wanted to interview Mourid Barghouti for the book – and was therefore thrilled when I had the chance to interview him on stage at an event in Liverpool earlier this month. I wanted to meet Suad Amiry and Zakariah Mohammed, too. Many others. Most of the time it was a logistical matter of not being able to arrange a meeting while I was in the region.

I also wanted to meet with the Tuqan family in Nablus to write about Fadwa and Ibrahim Tuqan, but I was unable to connect with them. I also considered writing about the late Taha Muhammad Ali, and met briefly with his son in Nazareth, but decided that Adina Hoffman’s comprehensive book about Taha rendered my treatment unnecessary.

My original idea for the book included a chapter on diaspora writers. I would have reached out to writers like Mazen Marouf, Sayed Kashua, Remi Kanazi, Suheir Hammad, Susan Abulhawa – among others. In the end, though, I decided to limit my focus to writers currently living in the region. That said, I’ve written a long magazine piece about Brooklyn-based writers Hala Alyan and Tala Abu Rahmeh which will appear in Hazlitt in the coming weeks.      .

How else did the book change as you spoke with writers and put it together?

MDC: Very early on, I wondered if I could write this book without mentioning politics at all. I wondered if it was possible to uncouple Palestinian culture from the conflict and write about Palestinian writers simply as artists. Of course, this was impossible. Still, I drew great pleasure from starting my conversations with questions like “what was the first poem you wrote?” or “tell me about your father’s library” rather than asking about their time at the checkpoints or their family’s lost olive trees.

Overall, though, I don’t think my intention for the book ever changed. I wanted to portray Palestine as a place of art and beauty. My readers will let me know if I succeeded.

 What interested you about Palestinian literature (beyond the girl in the green dress)? Why did you want to end with Maram?

MDC: I am more interested in Palestinian writers themselves than Palestinian literature. I’ve long wanted to write about Palestinians in a way that hasn’t been done before, and centre my explorations on culture. I suppose I could just as well have used music, or dance, or cuisine as the engine. But after spending a month teaching at the Palestine Writing Workshop in 2012, I figured literature would be my best lens. After all, if I was looking for new stories, who better to turn to than the storytellers themselves? Also, I am a writer myself and feel an affection and affiliation to my Palestinian colleagues. We speak the same language, even though we often didn’t speak the same language.

The image of Maram rescuing books from the rubble was such a compelling image for me from the very start that I figured I could end with her.

You talk about Gharib Asqalani’s “A White Flower for David,” for instance, and Asmaa al-Ghul’s war journalism, but don’t often write about the literature you (personally) love. Is there a reason for that? What Palestinian novels, memoirs, stories, poems have most moved you?

MDC: I kept my own favourites mostly out of the text simply because the book was not about me. I always feel permitted to express my emotions, opinions and sympathies in my work, but I don’t want to appear self-indulgent. I want to be the guide, not the focus.

Because I am primarily a nonfiction reader, the books that have affected me the most are Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and Mahmoud Darwish’s three “memoirs:” Journal of an Ordinary Grief, Memory for Forgetfulness and, especially, In the Presence of Absence. I enjoy Ghassan Kanafani’s short stories very much, and while I don’t write about her in the book, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read.

I was particularly interested in how you show different aspects of the relationship between Palestinian literature and Western news coverage, particularly with the (opportunistic, clickbaity) interest in the banning of Speak Bird from some journalists who “cared little about Palestinian education or literature.” Something I found disturbing about the coverage of the furor around Crime in Ramallah was that it often seemed to be portrayed as if only Westerners were standing up for Abbad Yahya’s book, or as though he were the only one who believed in freedom to write among a host of censors. It was a relief that you keep us firmly anchored in Palestine. Was there a reason Abbad Yahya wasn’t interviewed more extensively?

MDC: I would have like to explore the Crime in Ramallah scandal further, but I was not in Palestine when everything went down. (Yahya was not in Palestine at the time, either, if I remember correctly.) I didn’t feel I could do the story justice with email interviews. Normally I wouldn’t have included a story I did not have the chance to “investigate” myself, but I felt Yahya’s ordeal was important to tell because it shows that the challenges Palestinian writers face are not limited to Israeli occupation and Hamas oppression.

I do know that Yahya was supported by the Palestinian literary community in general, even those who were not particularly fans of his work.

Interesting note about what’s a bestseller at the Educational Bookshop (although of course people prefer novels that are inexpensive). Did you ask other booksellers what titles they move? 

MDC: I did not, I’m afraid. This was time issue more than anything else. The clock ran out on me.

More about the book on the Saqi website.