Khaled Nasrallah, whose novel The White Line of Night (Dar Al Saqi) was one of six shortlisted titles to this year’s IPAF prize, was born in Kuwait in 1987. At the age of twenty, he penned and self-published his debut book of essays A Kuwaiti from Another Planet. He has authored five novels, including Pigeon (2013), The Highest Depth (2016) and The Last Little Testaments (2017).
Nasrallah is also a celebrated short story writer and his story, ‘The Minister,’ won first prize in the competition, Short Stories on the Air, which was organized by Al Arabi magazine in collaboration with BBC Arabic. His short story collection, The Stage, was published by Al Farasha publishing house in 2011.
In 2016, he was outspoken about his views on the censorship of published books in Kuwait after more than 40 books that were published by Nova Plus, a publishing house co-founded by Nasrallah, were banned without explanation. In addition to his work on Nova Plus, Nasrallah also founded the Dar Al-Khan publishing house which only published translating works into Arabic.
Nasrallah’s The Highest Depth, shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (Young Author category) in 2007, centers on the subject of death and the afterlife. Its protagonist, Nasser, is a journalist who attempts to complete his friend’s novel after he dies in a mysterious accident. Later on, Nasser discovers that his friend’s writings prophesied his death.
Published in 2013, his novel, Pigeon, tackles the story of an orphaned Egyptian named Beshoy who was raised in Kuwait with a family that Beshoy sees as an uncle figure. Throughout the novel, Beshoy is in search of his own self, sense of identity, and family. During his search, he comes across the memoir of this uncle figure, which gradually leads him to uncover the truth about the man’s past.
ArabLit contributor, Ibrahim Fawzy, spoke to Nasrallah about the problems with censorship, and his literary inspirations.
By Ibrahim Fawzy
Congratulations on your nomination! Your novel The White Line of Night الخط الأبيض من الليل is one of six novels that were shortlisted for the 2022 IPAF, what does that mean to you? And what are the advantages of being shortlisted for the IPAF?
Khaled Nasrallah: Thank you! Being shortlisted is a lovely bit of recognition. Regardless of the prize itself, prizes make a novelist feel that they are on the right track. That is to say, that they are doing their work properly and contributing to the canon of Arabic literature. It can also make them feel that they are able to develop the narrative techniques, or use some of the modern experimentation that is not tackled much in Arabic novels. Then there are the opportunities to have your work translated and brought to English readers. Translation means more exposure to the global readership. Aside from the readership that the novel has gained, being shortlisted gives me a special sense of inner joy. Any writer wants to be read widely, but what really matters to me is that when readers experience my work, they find something that inspires and delights them.
How did The White Line of Night originate? What made you decide to write about censorship? What was your aim with writing this novel?
KN: We suffer from censorship in Kuwait, which is bizarre because Kuwait is the only country in the Gulf that has a real parliament instead of an appointed Consultative Council, as well as a margin of freedom of expression. But in recent years, a dreadful set of laws was strangely issued by this same parliament that restricted liberties and aggravated censorship on social media, journalism, and the written word in every form. Although vocal opposition is allowed, whenever you write anything, you could be punished, and this of course is one of the mysteries, resulting from our so-called democracy. But I didn’t decide to avoid setting The White Line of Night in Kuwait so that I could write freely and refer to anyone or anything without getting into trouble. Censorship is not exclusive to Kuwait; it is a global issue and it still exists in reality and practice even in the countries that theoretically nullified it.
What really inspired me to write this novel is a friend of mine who works at the publications censorship authority. He is a man of letters who has published two novels, but he is not famous since he isolates himself from society. Also, we protested this censorship placed on publications and tried to amend the law and we partially succeeded through exerting pressure on the members of parliament. So, this sequence of events inevitably moved me to write this novel too.
In The Highest Depth (الدرك الأعلى) you used an embedded narrative technique since the protagonist is a novelist, writing a novel whose main character is also a novelist. Also, inyour novel Pigeon (زاجل) you used a similar technique. Is this a technique you often use?
KN: Yes, I used this narrative technique in The Highest Depth and The White Line of Night. In The Highest Depth, the ‘Dead Man’ is a novelist, and his friend who works as a journalist is completing his novel. But in Pigeon, I used second-person narration for the uncle, who is an intellectual person, and who is narrating what he experienced in his childhood to ‘Beshoy,’ the boy. This narrative technique interrupts the story or the flashback and speaks in the present tense. In the White Line of Night, the censor was trying to write a novel, too. I intended, at first, to place the censor’s novella at the end of the book, but then I found that it would disincentivize the readers who wouldn’t read the censor’s novella. So, because the endings of both novels are in synch with each other, I found it better to merge both novels as though we are facing adjacent mirrors.
Why did you give the characters epithets, like the ‘Knight Writer’ and the ‘Adventurer Writer’, instead of real names?
KN: I am inspired by José Saramago who uses this technique which is, I think, much more effective. Even in Pigeon and The Highest Depth I also gave characters epithets and titles, like the ‘Girl of the Balcony’ and the ‘Dead Man.’ I think epithets and titles stick in the reader’s mind more than names do. Personally, when I name a character in a novel, I forget this name after a while, but I still remember their behaviors.
Do you remember which books first inspired and delighted you when you started reading as a child, and as a young man? And what do you enjoy about the act of writing?
KN: When I started reading as a child, I enjoyed children’s stories in magazines like Majid, Batut, and Mickey, which were sold as volumes that included many stories. I used to read these stories tirelessly. After that, I began reading Anis Mansour, whose writing style is simple, straightforward, interesting, and intriguing. For me, the pleasurable aspect of writing is the moment I reread a work that I believed was the best I could do at the time of writing it, and then realizing that I could still improve it.
Do you have a strict writing routine?
KN: No, but I try to keep writing daily if I am free of responsibilities. My routine, if we can call it a routine, includes preparing myself for the process of writing. I tend to read four or five pages of what I last wrote and edit those, if there are any edits needed, or I just look at a page on my computer screen for half an hour without writing anything at all.
What do you think makes a good novel?
KN: A novel centers on a tale that needs to be captivating to allure and delight readers. The language used should be harmonized with the main idea of the book as well as the events included. The more the language is precise and clear, the better the novel will be. The characters should be true to life, carefully chosen and sincerely portrayed. Characters should be derived from real life, so they become people with blood and flesh, not just fictional characters. Also, writers should bear in mind that creative works are mainly written to entertain readers even though the text discusses serious issues.
Finally, what are you working on now?
KN: I am currently enjoying working on a fictionalized biography that centers on events that took place between the 1940s and the end of the last decade.
Khaled Nasrallah is a Kuwaiti writer and novelist, born in 1987. He works as a PE teacher in Kuwait and has published numerous articles in the Kuwaiti Alwasat and Alqabas newspapers. He won first place in the ‘Short Stories on the Air’ competition organized by Alarabi magazine, and his novel The Highest Depth was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2017. A member of Rabitat Al-Udaba in Kuwait, Khaled Nasrallah is the CEO and founder of Nova Plus Publishing House in Kuwait
Ibrahim Fawzy is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts, Fayoum University, Egypt. He earned his MA in Comparative Literature in 2021. He is also an emerging literary translator whose translations have appeared in ArabLit.org and ArabLit Quarterly, Merit, Sard Adabi, Africa Qira’at, Olongo Africa, and Akhbar Aladab. In 2021, he was awarded the iRead prize for the best review of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. His first monograph, Belonging to Prison, is forthcoming in 2022. He can be found on twitter @IbrahimSayedF1