Eritrean novelist Haji Jaber was recently longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Black Foam. A translated excerpt of the novel — which follows a group of Ethiopian Jews, the “Falash Mura,” who are driven by poverty and desperation to emigrate to Israel in search of a better life — is forthcoming.
Ahead of that, Jaber and ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey had a short dialogue over email about the novel, the relationship between investigative journalism and writing fiction, how Jaber learned to read, and more:
Why this topic? Why these characters?
Haji Jaber: This topic falls within the project I have been working on from the beginning; namely, shedding light on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, on its people, history, and culture. The story of the Falasha Jews preoccupied me for a long time, but I refrained from starting on it until I had made the necessary preparations to write the work. As to the characters in Black Foam, they were necessitated by the text; their forms came in my imagination and I prepared them before writing.
Can you speak more about your research? Did you meet with Falasha Jews?
HJ: I was fortunate to receive an invitation to visit Ramallah and Jerusalem while in the middle of writing Black Foam. I dropped everything and flew there. Before that, I had put together a research plan to deepen my understanding of the past and present of Falasha Jews. I scoured book fairs in search of anything related to the subject. I asked friends and researchers, and I watched hours of documentaries. But none of this was comparable to going to see the Falasha and speak with them in Jerusalem. It was exciting to listen to their travails face-to-face, although, on the other hand, I then had to change my plan of action in accordance with this development. The main setting for events was shifted from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as some other things. But I did this with love, and I grew closer to the subject I was working on.
What is the relationship between your work as a journalist and your work as a writer? Is it a conflict? Or do they help each other?
HJ: I owe much to my work as a journalist; unlike my first novel, Samrawit, here I was writing about a place from the outside, which required the tools of investigative journalism I had honed and practiced at work. I collected documents, listened to witnesses, compared their testimonies, and then arranged it all in a narrative. The only thing I feared was that the novel would be influenced by my journalistic writing, so I took care not to confuse them.
Who is the audience for your books?
HJ: Allegedly, I write local stories about the scope of humanity that should be read by the world. I have experienced how literature doesn’t recognize borders or fences, and how it sheds light into dark places and onto the lives of those whose sufferings are paid no attention by anyone.
Do your family read your novels?
HJ: From the first, we are an oral family. My mother, who enrolled in an adult literacy school, left after a few years under pressure from my father, who seemed to have felt jealous of her surpassing him. So her current access to language doesn’t allow her to read my novels except with great difficulty. However, my mother has gone so far as to ask for copies of my work to be distributed at every occasion to her unlettered friends. My mother simply wanted to show off my books, I know, but I’m happy with her happiness. Now, at least one of my brothers is following everything I write, while my children can recognize the covers of my books without help.
What books did you enjoy as a child and a young man?
HJ: Unfortunately, I don’t have a history with children’s books. I learned to read and write late. I grew up in Saudi Arabia—which is where we migrated because of the war in Eritrea—without official papers, so I couldn’t find a school to accept me, despite all the efforts of my mother, who went around to the schools in Jeddah to no avail. I was past ten when she got my papers and enrolled me to study, and I began my journey in learning to read and write. My mother, for her part, joined adult literacy classes so she could follow my studies. We did our lessons together, and celebrated our successes together, until the day she stopped studying and I went on. I wrote about this part of my life in my first novel, Samrawit. On the other hand, I do remember that the neighbor’s daughter gave me the story of Sinbad. I was ashamed not to be able to read, and so I didn’t tell her—I just looked at the drawings.
When I grew up, I was influenced by many books. No book passed through me without leaving an impression, and there were more than I could count.
Do you write “political novels”?
HJ: I write about the people of my country, because they are a persecuted and suffering people, and so my novels come in this manner. I would like to write far from politics, but I would betray these people if I turned away from their issues. In Eritrea, we are still living outside history, enslaved to an oppressive regime in various forms, and all of this is considered the meaning of “homeland,” which is innocent.
Who are your favorite Eritrean novelists? What are your favorite Eritrean novels?
HJ: The Eritrean novel is still finding its feet. It’s true that there is more writing in recent years, but quality has not yet caught up to quantity. We all owe a debt to Mohamed Said Naud, author of the first Eritrean novel (Winter’s Journey).
How did you choose Dar al-Tanweer? Did they help edit the novel?
HJ: Dar al-Tanweer has a good reputation throughout Arab countries; it’s a house that’s rigorous in its choices, and I was lucky to publish my novel with them. I entered into a long discussion about the novel with the house’s director, Hassan Yaghi, and I agreed with some of his suggestions and rejected others. I’m satisfied with what was ultimately achieved.
And you teach creative writing?
HJ: I’m an accredited trainer at the Al Jazeera Media Institute in Doha, where I’ve conducted a number of creative-writing courses under the title, “Writing the First Novel.” I find I have a passion for it, and I enjoy talking about novel-writing. At the end of the day, I’m happy to help someone start out in their writing career.
Interview translated by M Lynx Qualey. All mistakes, etc.
The next interview in this series is forthcoming Wednesday, January 23. It’s with Dr. Iman Yehia, author of The Mexican Wife.