Samir Kacimi’s novel The Stairs of Trollar was longlisted last month for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Yesterday, we had an excerpt from the novel, translated by Mustafa Hafid. Today, a conversation between Kacimi and our Algeria editor:
By Nadia Ghanem
2020 is not the first time that one of Kacimi’s novels has been selected for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) longlist. The author’s novel A Great Day to Die, published by El-Ikhtilef editions, was longlisted in 2010. Kacimi was also a participant in the IPAF’s nadwa workshops in 2013.
Kacimi is the author of eight novels; his first, Declaration of Loss, (تصريح بضياع), was published in 2008.
First off, congratulations, Samir! This year, four Algerian novelists are on the IPAF longlist. Why do you think so many novels from Algeria are present on this year’s longlist? Do you think it reflects a particular trait of the literary production of 2019, or is it due to the work of Algerian publishing houses, who made a special effort to participate in the IPAF, or is it perhaps just a coincidence?
Samir Kacimi: I think it is due to an evolution in the Algerian novel, in particular novels written by the post-90s generation, who began conceiving new texts that have now emerged on the Algerian literary scene, and who offer different novels to those composed by writers before that period. The Algerian novel has the advantage of being written in more than one language, notably Arabic and French, and I think that this linguistic and cultural wealth has finally been able to evolve into a new type of novel inspired by originality but also open to all. This is why I do not think this occurrence is due to chance, nor because of the great number of novels published this year for example, nor because Algerian publishing houses were interested in participating in the IPAF.
You were one of the first Algerian novelists to have appeared on a longlist for the IPAF, in 2010 for your novel A Great Day to Die (يوم رائع للموت), what were the positive and/or negative aspects of this selection?
SK: Yes this is true, and it helped by giving me recognition in the Arab world. In particular, it exposed my work to a wider readership and it got literary critics interested, but I must also say that the acclaim linked to a prize is generally tied to the novel listed for the prize and not to what is published later, nor to what was published before being longlisted. In the Arab world, I feel there is no tradition of readership, no automatic interest by literary critics in what gets published, on top of the fact that the Arabic platforms dedicated to cultural production have become rare and are incapable of absorbing the large quantity of novels published each year, now many thousands of books over last few years. I think sometimes there is too much interest in prizes and in the novels nominated for them, and this does not foster a natural development of the novel in the Arabic language; this aspect, which I consider a serious one, does not help the Arabic novel.
Since 2010, you have published many other novels, you have also been translated, and you are now a well-established novelist. Does this selection for 2020 remain important for you ? Will it bring you different opportunities compared to 2010?
SK: This selection is important to me because it is an opportunity for my novel to be read by a wider public. The nature of The Stairs of Trollar, and the style in which it is written — in addition to its subject matter — could lead to this novel not being brought to the attention of many readers. The Stairs of Trollar is a dystopia that speaks about dictatorship, about tyranny and corruption. It is a political novel that also speaks about what goes on in authoritarian regimes and the manner in which these systems treat people as if they were minors. I was worried that this novel would be ignored because of a subject matter that the authorities could easily dislike, but also because it is a post-modern novel. This type of narration has not yet found its place in the Arab world, because critics do not follow the rhythm of the development of new novels, and because of their conviction that a traditional writing style is more worthy. And so with publications and prizes, the establishment attempts to ignore this type of style. It could be that my dream novel has been subjected to this injustice.
I read that you began writing The Stairs of Trollar during a writing residency (2018) during which you worked with the translator Lotfi Nia, your translator to French, in order to pursue a writing process that would integrate writing and translation. This is original! Could you describe what went on and how you both proceeded?
SK: I began writing The Stairs of Trollar in 2014 and I finished it in January 2019, and I used the residency in Marseilles to finish writing the most important part of the novel, the chapter titled “The Letter.” The idea behind it was to compare two cities that resemble each other, Marseille and Algiers, and to compare two different cultures, one of them colonial. My work with Lotfi was constructed independently from this, but it greatly benefitted me. Thanks to Lotfi and to the residency mentors, I was able to blend into the city of Marseille, to discover its secrets and this contributed to the formulation of the chapter “The Letter,” which was translated to English by the Algerian translator Mustafa Hafid.
Your novel recounts a parallel reality in which doors have disappeared. Which event inspired you to reimagine this most fundamental of intimate spaces?
SK: To tell you the truth, I have been lucky throughout my career so far to have found ideas for my novels with little effort. Coincidences have been my greatest allies, including during writing. I once decided to repaint my flat in Algiers and as is my habit of sticking my nose in everything, I convinced myself it was a simple job that I could do myself, so I began painting the house. It was a disaster, of course. As could have happened to anyone with little experience, I forgot to paint the doors until the last day! So, to make up for lost time, I took out the doors and I painted them on the balcony. To make sure they would dry, I left them there and went to sleep, until I was awakened by my four-year-old son who was in a panic and was screaming that all the doors had disappeared. It is the horror I saw in his eyes and in the eyes of my wife that the idea of writing about a city with no doors grew in my mind.
Who inspired you to write the character of Olga ? Would Olga go demonstrate in the streets of Algiers with everyone else today ?
SK: The character of Olga was inspired by a woman who is considered mad in our neighbourhood. We see her every evening watching the world from her balcony, and she stays there until nightfall. She has severe weight problems, and for the last ten years she has not gone out of her apartment. All she seems to do is to stay on her balcony, in her home on the last floor of the building. I liked the idea of building a character who would stand on her balcony and who only knows the capital from this vantage point. Until today, I ask myself if what we see from above and what we see below really look alike?
What would your character Jamal Hamidi think of the hirak ?
SK: Jamal Hamidi is a very negative individual, he is indifferent, has no ambition, is not very intelligent but he is ready to take a post of high responsibility in the system. He is a concierge who becomes the president of a country, basically. This was my way of criticizing the reality we find ourselves in in Algeria, and which to some extent is what is happening in the Arab world. There are always people who work secretly to manipulate puppets, themselves considered high officials. These individuals diverted the course of the revolution to make petty individuals like Jamal Hamidi sit in the President’s seat.
Your novel Love At the Turn was translated to French by Lotfi Nia (L’Amour au Tournant), did you participate in the translation by working on the French text, or did you restrict yourselves to discussions and exchanges?
SK: Yes, we discussed the text and it was a wonderful experience. I think that it is a very good translation, very close to the original.
Is the translation of your work in other languages important for you ? To which language(s) would you like to see your other novels being translated, and why these particular languages if any?
SK: The translation of my work into other languages is very important to me. I would love to know the echo that my novels have in different societies, and cultures that express themselves in different languages. Honestly, my experience with the French translation of my novel was very important and I benefited a great deal from the experience, but I would love to know how this same text would resonate in English, Spanish, or German. These are the languages of the modern novel for me, and I would like to find out how I would fare in these languages.
Which difficulties (or facility) do you encounter in the publication and promotion of your work in Algeria and abroad? What would be your suggestions to improve the situation?
SK: Personally, I have not encountered difficulties in being edited, but the reality of what goes on in the Arab world — because of frictions, internal wars and instability between different Arabic countries — weakens the distribution of books and their move from one country to the next. In addition, readers’ access and the number of readers there is quite disheartening.
Satire and political criticism are often present in your novels; who are the satirical or political authors you like to read?
SK: I very much enjoy reading Charles Dickens and Paul Auster. I always find myself within wonderful texts when I read them. I also like to read Carlos Fuentes and Georgy Amadou. In French, I like to read Jérôme Ferrari.
Which Algerian women novelists do you read? Which of their novels would you recommend?
SK: Honestly, I love reading Assia Djebar. I love her style and her attachment to Algeria. I love reading Nadia Guendouz’s poetry. I also enjoy Rabia Djelti’s novels, especially because every new text of hers is written in a different style. Anna Greci’s books are also wonderful.
This interview was translated from the French by Nadia Ghanem.
Dr. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor. She is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow attached to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where she works on a project translating divination texts from ancient Iraq, written in the Akkadian language. She also blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about Algerian literature.