When Words Dance: Alia Mamdouh on Embers of Passion, Ashes of Existence

The winner of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction is set to be announced next Tuesday, April 14. In the days before, a talk between emerging writer Zainab Al Qaisi and shortlisted Iraqi novelist Alia Mamdouh:

By Zainab Al Qaisi

Translations by Zainab Al Qaisi

Around the time the shortlist was announced for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), I had the opportunity to meet—virtually—with the revolutionary and hard-working author Alia Mamdouh, shortlisted this year for her novel The Tank. Although we held the conversation online, Alia’s presence and spirit were there, loud and confident, against all odds. During the course of this talk, Mamdouh and I were perplexed many times, but what we were sure about was the mutual ambition that drives us both to reach out to readers.

The Tank’: A Novel of Mystery and Wonder

Zainab Al Qaisi: The Tank, your ninth novel and first to reach an IPAF shortlist, is a novel of wonders. What are the circumstances and artistic elements which leads to a novel being wondrous? How can we write an unforgettable story?

Alia Mamdouh

Alia Mamdouh: A writer doesn’t intend to have their work named or titled a wonder. Authorship is a very secretive and complicated process. In many instances, my writing has developed a life-death motif simultaneous with a resonant certainty of its existential necessity, which has saved me inside out, throughout the years. I don’t write wonders or mysteries; all my writings and works are mere attempts to annotate these marvelous systems that encapsulate human beings in vicious, vain, and rude worlds. Ultimately, whatever lies in inside us—of sorrow, pity, fear, relief, or quietness—becomes an artistic inevitability, which paves the way for the senses of sound, taste, smell, breath, and expression to become the absolute formula from which we create the fullest awareness of our life’s trials and experiences.

Notwithstanding, what categorically shapes and reshapes my all works is those failures that face me on a daily basis. These failures, whether large or small, always have the chance to block the creation of an upcoming work of fiction, yet through perseverance and Penelope’s manner of patient suffering, I endure on the road until the end. I do not have fixed guidelines for what a good author can be, but I might use words I’ve kept telling myself for forty years: “Be only yourself.” 

The Cube,’ The Snare

Zainab Al Qaisi

ZQ: Authors create their own fictional cosmos, bringing readers into the mosaics of these imagined worlds with pleasure and pain. I’ve admired many fictious universes in books: from Jean Paul Sartre’s Hell in No Exit to the Big Brother’s eyes of surveillance and espionage in George Orwell’s 1984, to J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. In your novel, The Tank, what is this “cube” around which the characters’ stories unfold? What are the conditions of its existence? Is it people’s haven and place of salvation, or is it their eternal incarceration?

AM: It wasn’t possible that I write about the cube by myself. Doing it in that way would be unquestionably doubtful. I didn’t want to integrate the cube into the structure of my novel from the beginning; I thought of it as the last aesthetic boundary, something that had the capacity to entirely transform whoever stepped inside its walls. While reading Nostos: A Tale of a Street in Baghdad, by a wonderful friend and architect Maath Alousi, I fell in love and entrapped in his cube. An inner voice encouraged me to open the world of this cube to various forms of art, life joys, and existence—to live inside it and assimilate.

The architect designed the cube as a dwelling for his architectural and poetic madness and festivities which, as I believe, is not a construction of the present as much as it is a foreboding of the future. Writing about the cube has enabled me to recreate, reconstruct, and reshape it in a changeable manner—unlike the conventional, unlively method of engineering. In doing so, I think I might have succeeded in renovating the cube’s utopian structural scenery into a daring and tempting universe, occupied by a powerful life force, where the aesthetics of beauty gives free rein to our vision.  

‘The Tank’: A Work of Meta-Genre

ZQ: The Tank has a distinctive narrative style that captures all the reader’s senses. Your characters present the story as though from a director’s eye; they highlight what’s coming and assign particular storyline for each ahead. Do you consider your novel a metafiction? And what can you tell us about breaking the fourth wall, and characters addressing the reader directly, in The Tank?

AM:  I have never thought to deliberately write my books based on any particular style. Writing cannot be a whole unless it gets through a continuous cycle of desperate trials. In writing, the author assembles their characters in a room with a round table; they all sit there in suspense, waiting for their written role in a work of art, which the author is about to write. It is a difficult process. Honestly, I think the novelist must strive to delve into these characters’ worlds, and that they must approve the author’s curious penetration into their psyche, whether they like it or not.

Each time I begin to write, all these different scenarios pop into my thinking. In The Tank, I could hear the family members’ footsteps, especially when Afaf walks, as if they were melancholic musical notes. Here various techniques emerge in soundcraft, such as Afaf Ayyoub’s melodious singing voice; or in the visual, as when Tarab and Younis employ carving in other chapters. In The Tank¸ I experimented with the vividness of all genres and their artistic functions—i.e. theatre, cinematography, art of speech and eloquence—and I gave the absent elements to the tongue of the speaker, which gives the novel its multitude and power. Or, in any case, this is something I aspired to achieve.

‘Language’: The Army Leader

ZQ: Between homeland and the exile—across Baghdad, Beirut and Paris—shuttling between journalistic and creative writing, where have you found your true home? Is home the physical land to which we affiliate? Is it the faces of the people who we know, and who know us? Is it the details that capture us in nature? In the streets? From the window of the plane? Or is it the tranquility we relish under a tree while looking up at the sky? What is home that you crave and are eager to return to?

AM: This question very much captures my attention. In what you mentioned, the latent surpasses the apparent, and the beginnings, undoubtedly, are far and away more significant than the closures. What overflows from us or others shall return to us. From lifeless grass, to perished meat, or deceased love—all revive in the pot of memories inside the soul of a human being. We are tangled in this interplay between language, places, characters, history, and documentation.

It is what made Sami commit suicide, an incident that crushed Afaf. Death is the cruelest enemy that resides between pages in most of my works; it is Death who manipulated me, such that I can make up stories with a lot of sarcasm and dark humor. In the meantime, I am nostalgic for whom I really am. Myself is the spaciotemporal pretext that I live by. As for the cities I’ve lived in, each has its magic touch; however, all these places were an escape from something I want to confront with an authorial army. That is: language.

‘I Am Still Bothersome’                                                                                          

ZQ: Let’s take a journey to the 1970s. Tell us about yourself as a young journalist and controversial storyteller who was, among other writers, accused of being misleading and contrary. What happened back then? And what were the considerations you had, risks you took, sacrifices you made as an opinion writer?

AM: Despite my age, I am still bothersome. I had to be myself—without being affiliated to any governmental organization, party, reference or job. I took the less-travelled road to keep allegiance to myself; I couldn’t compromise my status just to be in the spotlight, which everyone fights to reach. For me, that delusional position distracts sight and vision, and creates a sense of resentment.

My journey in speaking up, using the power of my language, was tougher than I expected. However, I survived those disquieting times with all the force I have—despite the few trials I lost. There was a man who granted me definitive support, and has believed in me, my infinite worlds, and my talent more than me: This is the man whom I truly love, my husband. 

Alia Mamdouh, a Banned Writer

ZQ: Sensuality, human rights, rebelling against government, and local and western imperialisms are among the contentious themes you consider and employ in your works of fiction. What works best in highlighting such themes? And where do you envision your narrative voice the most: through sensual, descriptive, historical, or documentary writing styles?

AM: I am a writer of senses. I write what I feel, what I hear, and what touches me inside. Some of my novels where banned, for instance Al-Ghulama (The Maiden, 2000) and Al Tashahi or Al-Wala (Passion, 1993), which unquestionably laid a heavy burden on the Arabic reader. In my beloved country, Iraq, some in literary circles hate to say my name or refer to my works. Some critics stopped writing about my novels in 1986, the same year when Habbat al-Naftaleen (Naphthalene) was published. Criticism shall adapt to the shifting of writers’ diverse styles; critics must adjust their tools and carve new methods of re-reading works of arts in a new way. It seems my novels were fit to those critic’s whims, not because of my novels’ importance, but because they present new perspectives of life and revolt against the convention. I was, and still am, very fortunate with the abundance of critical readings, academic research, and literary articles written about my works, and I owe much to them for highlighting my novels and presenting these works to the world differently, especially through translation. I have learned a lot from those critics, and I’ve kept following their critical commentaries; they have bridged the paths between me and the cognitive and theoretical pedagogy of literary Arabic and Western criticism through the established critique of my works.

I’ve employed all that I know, and what I aspire to generate, through polyphony, writing techniques, and innovative meta-narrative. I have never experimented such as I did in Passion, The Foreigner, and The Tank.

‘My Good Friend and Confidante’

ZQ: Every writer has that person who fills their empty days, tightens their weaknesses, and never let them be loose. Who do you trust to read and revise your manuscripts before publishing? A friend? An editor? A publisher?

AM: I am fortunate enough to have her by my side, so I owe her much. When she reads my works, I never get annoyed or argue with her comments. The trust we have built in each other through years is sufficiently instilled in our minds and hearts. This good friend and I are so different in our views, yet I expect no betrayal, or envy, or jealousy between us; since I met her, I’ve asked her to take a look at my novels starting with Al Tashahi (The Passion), then she was generous to review Pragmatic Passion and The Foreigner respectively, and finally of course, my IPAF-shortlisted novel, The Tank.

My friend is a generous soul, a powerful, talented, and educated woman, and an intellectual translator, too. She wrote one novel, Mamarrat as-Sukun (2006) which was translated into English as Zubaida’s Window (2008); it is a novel replete with grief and belongs to her own genre creation. It’s a well-crafted and elite book on exile by the Iraqi novelist and translator, who lives in Berlin, my good friend and confident: Iqbal al-Qazwini.

‘The Least-selling Author’

ZQ: Your writing style belongs neither to a school of feminism or anti-feminism, it only belongs to you. What would you say to a female writer who breaths writing, who pauses a lot in her writing journey and gets tangled in between hesitant steps ahead, yet rejects failure and wants to venture on her path as a writer?

AM: I do not like to wear the preacher’s apron and lecture about writing. I am still learning every single day from the world around me, from all races, all ethnicities, all identities, and ages. I do not have a recipe to answer the question, “How to write?” as we have in cookery books, a pinch of pepper here or a little spicing up there to have a meal, a work of art.

What categorically captures me at the age of 15 when I wrote my first short story, which was published without any changes in the Lebanese magazine Al Hasnaa (The Belle), was the process of organizing authorship. I do not follow rules, nor methodologies, nor tutorials, but I care a great deal about discovering the inner author in me, not to praise the fictitious images of a would-be author. None of my works is the same, and they never present judgments or grudges against any party. My novels might be mistaken or annoying for some, and consequently I could become the least-selling author and the most-banned among my generation, from both genders.

‘IPAF: A Personal Astonishment’

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is a major one. What other works, on your reading list, would you nominate for such a prize? Who are the writers that inspire you in the Arab world?

AM: I think the author who reaches the longlist of the ‘Arabic Booker’ opens the doors to the wind and enters a competition that varies between genres, narrative styles, and themes in the Arabic novel. This year, the prize’s nominations surprised me personally; it is my first time to be among such distinguished literary figures and names, and then shortlisted for this eminent award. As far the novelists who have left their influence on me, I decided a long time ago to abandon the habit of bringing names (of either genders) to the table of interviews, particularly after what I suffered from their disrespectful and rude statements about me and my works, which still haunt me till this day.

March 2020, Paris

Zainab Al Qaisi is a PhD candidate in English literature at the university of Jordan. She is also CEO and Co-Founder of Al Nqsh, an electronic platform for Children and Adults literature books’ reviews. She works as a creative content and Production Manager at O MENA Media, Abu Dhabi.  From 2012 to 2018 she worked as an instructor of English language in the Language Center at The Hashemite University, Jordan.   Zainab has directed some podcasts on Maktabti Audiobooks application, and is now working on three more to be released soon. She is interested in Arab American Poetry, Translation and Literary feminist studies. Twitter: @ZainabAlQaisi | Instagram: @Zainabalqaisi86 | Facebook: Zainab.Alqaisi86.