On the occasion of his second novel, Libyan author Hisham Matar discusses the effect of totalitarianism on personal lives, what makes the novel a great art form, and the Arab Spring.
Photograph via Flickr by Writers Centre Norwich
On the U.S. release of his second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance this fall, Hisham Matar was designated by Robert F. Worth in The New York Times as “an authentic interpreter and witness, someone who could speak across cultures and make us feel the abundant miseries that fueled the revolt.” Revolt here, of course, refers to the Arab Spring, that chain of rebellions from Tunis to Cairo which leveraged union organizing, social media, Wikileaks and was ostensibly triggered by censorship, government violence, skyrocketing unemployment and food prices to turn ordinary citizens against their (often-U.S. backed) dictators in plazas and squares in Middle Eastern and North African capitals. However much those covering it in the United States wanted to point narrowly to Western-invented social media, careful analysis suggested it was a long time in coming with multiple, complex causes. The big story has been and will continue to be told. But in his novels Matar has explored what state violence does to families in their most intimate moments.
Anatomy of a Disappearance tells the story of a young narrator obsessed with his missing father in ways that show some vague desire to fill the elder’s shoes, to claim his stepmother somehow as his own. As many of the reviews have noted, Matar’s father was kidnapped from Cairo in 1990 by agents of Muammar Qaddafi and secreted to Tripoli’s infamous Abu Selim Prison where he was likely tortured. His whereabouts remain unknown. Matar writes in elegant English, and, as Worth notes, “seems uniquely poised to play the role of literary ambassador between two worlds that have long been locked in mutual suspicion and ignorance.”
This is Matar’s second book to spin fiction around a protagonist’s relationship with his missing father. In the conversation that follows, which took place at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena in September, Matar tells fellow author Hari Kunzru how the scenarios in his books allow him to ask whether “it [is] possible to ever know your father—that this incredibly intimate person is also incredibly mysterious, particularly when you try to imagine what it would be like to be their friend or their equal or to come to them that way.” Matar’s fiction deliberately makes space for a specific flavor of silence that, he says, “exists between language and the thing itself, which is really the space where the reader starts to invest their own sensibility.” He also discusses the pressure to speak for the Libyan revolution to the outside world and how he prefers his role as a writer, rather than what he calls a do-er.
Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood in Tripoli, then Cairo. Due to political persecution in 1979, his father was accused of being a reactionary to the Libyan revolutionary regime and was forced to leave the country with his family. They lived in Egypt through the time of his father’s kidnapping. Today, Matar lives in London and serves as an associate professor at Barnard College in New York. In addition to his novels, he has written for several publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker, and has appeared on BBC, NPR, and PBS.
Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, as well as Noise, a collection of short stories. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and won him prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize of the Society of Authors, a Pushcart Prize, and the British Book Award. In 2003, Granta named him one of their twenty best young British novelists; he’s also the deputy president of English PEN, a patron of the Refugee Council, and a member of the editorial board of Mute magazine. His short stories and journalism have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, Guardian, New Yorker, The Financial Times, The Times of India, Wired and New Statesman. His fourth novel, Gods Without Men, will be published in the United States in March 2012. He lives in New York City.
Hari Kunzru: With Anatomy of a Disappearance, what came first? Are you the kind of writer who will be very programmatic and sit down and say, “What I want is to do is to write a bizarre, tense love triangle between a fourteen-year-old boy, his father and stepmother,” or is it something else that happens?
Hisham Matar: I start with very little. The weaker the thread, the more excited I get. So if I start with a gesture, or in this case I started with a feeling, for Nuri. I mean if Nuri were to walk in here I probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Hari Kunzru: Physically, you mean.
Hisham Matar: Meaning I don’t know how he looks. I know that he’s tall and dark but I don’t know much beyond that. But I had this deep feeling for him. I knew what it would be like to be sitting next to him. You walk, you rush to a concert, at the last moment you find your seat, the lights go down, you didn’t see the person next to you and you feel it’s too rude to sort of look at them. But you have a sense of how the music is affecting them, or sometimes they might hum or they might sigh at a certain moment and you think, Ah, I didn’t expect you to be affected by that particular phrase in the music. So that’s sort of what I felt for him, and I carried this around for a year.
Hari Kunzru: Because he has a very sensuous presence in the book…he is a sensualist. There’s a lot of very charged description: he’s aware of droplets of water. He’s aware of a lot of things.
Hisham Matar: Yeah he pays close attention. Which is a problem for him [laughs]. But it was after a year of writing that I felt I might have a book here. I hit on the first sentence while walking. And it’s, “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” I kept repeating the sentence in my head and thought, okay, this is a sentence that has in it the music, the DNA, the logic of this character in this book and I will let the sentence write the next sentence and so on.
Hari Kunzru: You follow it with, “And other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table.” This seems to really capture the poles between which Nuri has to exist. There’s the physical weight of loss, and then at other times it’s so light, he can barely keep hold of it.
Hisham Matar: Yeah.
Hari Kunzru: I looked again at your first novel as well and it seems like there’s a sort of rhyme between the first novel and this. The style of writing is actually very different. The first novel is a much busier and a more fraught thing. It’s the politics of Libya, and there’s the terror, the secret police, there’s this atmosphere. But it’s completely different in Anatomy of a Disappearance which is quite a dreamy book. But still, there’s a more than fatherly father who is magnified by his absence. The protagonist of In the Country of Men is younger—but there’s a child who is casting off childish perceptions in the face of this disappearance and there’s a mother and a kind of sensuous closeness and maybe even an inappropriate closeness with the mother.
Borges was right: you don’t write the books you choose; you write the books that you can write, and this is what I seem to be able to do.
Hisham Matar: I’m fascinated with the structure of the family. Where would literature be without families? It’s also something so fundamentally shared—it’s obviously where we all start but also there are more parallels. One of the questions that Anatomy of a Disappearance is asking is, is it possible to ever know your parent, to ever know your father—that this incredibly intimate person is also incredibly mysterious, particularly when you try to imagine what it would be like to be their friend or their equal or to come to them that way. I suspect our fathers would even smell different to us if we were able to do that. And yet the person is the same. So that is a preoccupation. But also this sense of—how do you tell the story or the reality of existing in this very peculiar political atmosphere? You know, where private life is infiltrated regularly by these regimes, no? The invitation for a Libyan writer is to write this historical book, you know the last fifty years of Libyan life and Libyan politics told through twelve different characters from different perspectives.
Hari Kunzru: You’re not tempted to do the ‘Italians onward’ and write a 1,000-page War and Peace–type thing?
Hisham Matar: I am tempted in a sense that it is so different than the sort of writing I’m attracted to. It’s so different that it’s tempting. But I am more interested not so much in telling how the political reality came to be the way it is and to try to explain it historically and sociologically and so on. What I’m more interested in is the private moment. I’m interested in how people love differently under this situation.
Hari Kunzru: Surely that’s the most toxic thing about totalitarianism in any form is its ability to infiltrate the most intimate moment…
Hisham Matar: On some level, it’s an artistic act of resistance to try to reclaim this moment, and try to fill it with a sort of complexity that echoes that reality or psychologically suggests that reality…because I do think that people love differently under this situation; I do think that people listen to music differently—now how do you pick up a cup of coffee, how do you touch somebody’s face? That, to me, seems worthwhile and really the place to start if you want to say something. At least for me I feel not only that I can do it, because it’s my sensibility but I feel I’m attracted to it. And Borges was right: you don’t write the books you choose; you write the books that you can write, and this is what I seem to be able to do.
Hari Kunzru: And so you see this as a sort of restorative thing. I mean, it’s political in the sense that you’re able to restore intimacy to those characters or people who’ve been robbed of it.
Hisham Matar: No, I don’t think they’ve been robbed of it. I’m not restoring anything to them they don’t have. But I’m trying to make it a subject worth concentrating on, that one of the things that happens under this situation is people are not [allowed] to give the private moment its worth. I feel that, since the fall of the Libyan dictatorship, something radical has changed. It has influenced the way that I deal with my loved ones, the way that I deal with myself, with my body. For example, there is the generation of Libyan writers that were imprisoned collectively in the late ’70s…
Hari Kunzru: This is an extraordinary story—Qaddafi invited everybody to a literary festival, and then arrested them all, and people were given a sentence up to ten years.
Hisham Matar: On average, yes, ten years. And they were all in their mid-twenties up to their early thirties. So to me, that story is moving only to a certain extent. It was after learning of certain details that I was moved very deeply. I have two friends who were part of this disastrous event and they were in the same cell. And they were allowed once a week to go out and shower, and there’s a very long line to the shower because there aren’t enough cubicles for all these guys. And one of my friends—who’s the better writer, I have to say—
Hari Kunzru: I love that this is significant… [Laughs.]
Hisham Matar: He would spend always too long in the shower.
Hari Kunzru: Ah.
Hisham Matar: And one day my other friend just couldn’t bear it anymore. He says “For God’s sake, come on—get out of the shower!” And my friend says to him, “But this is my body.” Huh? That’s enough. For me, that’s enough. That for me says more about the event and more about the reality.
Hari Kunzru: Right.
Hisham Matar: The dictatorship managed to do that.
Hari Kunzru: And that’s your way into the large, the large question without having to state the large question. You write in English, and I’m very intrigued by the quality your prose has. English is the instrument that you’re using, and you write very clean, and to my mind sort of classically beautiful English prose. It has those values of balance and beauty and proportion. You seem to be interested in that. It reminded me—perhaps it was the subject matter, as well—of Nabokov. So firstly, are you a Nabokov fan? And is his writing of particular interest to you? And secondly, more generally, when did English turn up for you and when were you able first to write in English?
Hisham Matar: Nabokov is a writer I admire, but I can’t say—
Hari Kunzru: He wouldn’t be special.
Hisham Matar: No, I can’t say he’s a particular influence.
Hari Kunzru: Ah, then, I guessed wrong.
Hisham Matar: But, English…there is a love affair with the language. But I think paradoxically it allows me a sort of distance that makes me braver, I feel.
Hari Kunzru: Do you dream in English? Or do you dream in Arabic?
Hisham Matar: I don’t think I dream in language, actually. There are some things said in dreams that sometimes are in English or in Arabic. I’m very interested in those early moments in the idea for a book. Like this feeling I was describing for Nuri that does exist outside of language. All of that exists outside of language.
Hari Kunzru: I mean maybe in a way the need to write a book is the need to bring this unsayable thing into language. That was always of interest for me, in writing a book, precisely because it’s not graspable, quite, that it requires this protracted labor of telling a story around it in order to try to make it…present.
One of the virtues of the novel [is] that it takes from everywhere. It’s a very unruly kind of an artistic beast. It can start pretending to be architecture, or it can pretend to be music. Or it can aspire to poetry at a certain point.
Hisham Matar: Do you feel that you are going at it with language or do you feel that you are miming it with language?
Hari Kunzru: I feel like sometimes you’re placing language beside the thing, or as near as possible to the thing. And then its shape starts to emerge. But then also enacting is another way that that happens for me. I think sometimes by kind of…you know in the crassest possible way, kind of trying to embody the things and say the words that you feel that you would say becomes a way of understanding it. And the ways your drafts fall short of what it is that you want. And hopefully fall less and less short until you give up and hand it in to [the] teacher. [Laughs.]
Hisham Matar: I feel very similarly in the sense that the language is miming the thing. Or coming at it, or standing beside it as you describe. And perhaps that’s where the silence that I was mentioning exists between language and the thing itself, which is really the space where the reader starts to invest their own sensibility.
Hari Kunzru: I feel, as a reader, that’s always what makes a good novel, when you realize you’re being either forced—or, preferably, gently coaxed—to bring yourself to it. That’s when it’s doing its job, when it’s actually making you go and supply what it’s refusing to supply to you. So I agree, that I’m more and more interested in gaps. I’m more and more interested in things which aren’t necessarily tied up tightly with a little bow on the top. These kind of clockwork structures that are conventional narrative. It’s supposed to deliver. Like when you decide to disrupt that, when you remove certain things from that, what happens? And I feel as a reader certainly you’re forced to try and bridge that with whatever you have.
Hisham Matar: Yes.
Hari Kunzru: So when did you start writing in English? Did you start writing in Arabic?
Hisham Matar: From a very young age, writing poems mainly. And I’ve always wanted to be a poet, really. It’s an accident that I’m a novelist. I’m a failed poet, so I write novels. But my obsessions when I was very young were poetry, music, and architecture.
Hari Kunzru: And that’s because you trained as an architect.
Hisham Matar: Yeah, and worked as an architect. But somehow it seems fantastically fortunate that I’m writing novels. Because those three things—music and architecture and poetry—are all involved in writing a novel.
It never feels completely okay that I’m not writing in Arabic.
Hari Kunzru: I always feel like that is one of the virtues of the novel, it takes from everywhere. It’s a very unruly kind of an artistic beast. It can start pretending to be architecture, or it can pretend to be music. Or it can aspire to poetry at a certain point. So I sort of think the programmatic modernist idea of the novel is always going to get it slightly wrong; it’s just too much of a monster to be reduced to something programmatic like that. So, English from an early age?
Hisham Matar: Yes. My education switched from Arabic to English when I was twelve. And it was very intense because we were living in an Arabic country, in Cairo. And I was going to this English-language school and they would put these headphones on me and play, you know, Jane Austen. And I’d be reading Jane Austen. And this went on for months. And I’d go home and everybody would be speaking in Arabic. It’s amazing I still like Jane Austen! [Laughs.]
Hari Kunzru: [Laughs.] That really sounds like some kind of British person, at Bagram Air Base or something.
Hisham Matar: It never feels completely okay that I’m not writing in Arabic. On some level it’s sort of a betrayal. But at the same time, English gives me that distance I was trying to describe. It makes me braver, but it also makes me more restrained. And I’m very interested in—it’s part of what we were talking about—another big question mark, which is: how do you create art under this situation? How to be an artist from a place like Libya? What do you do? How do you approach this? And it seems to me, one of the interesting challenges is, How do you remain incredibly eloquent and incredibly calm? How do you do that? Because one of the objectives of dictatorship is to retard you, is to make you either silent or imprisoned or underground. Or so angry and loud that even the people who agree with you have no patience to listen to you. So that’s part of this project. How do you do the opposite? How do you be restrained? And somehow, writing in another language, and a language that I do have a love affair with, has given me this ability to be a little bit distant. In some ways it has abstracted the reader for me.
Hari Kunzru: Some [writers] need to be incredibly close to their material, and write in the first person, and it will be invested with their direct lived experience. And other people—I certainly find it gets easier to speak at a distance, because a certain sense of self-consciousness doesn’t arise. But here you are. You basically described a writing life that is all about quietness and a certain sense of calm distance and inferring the political from the personal. Yet you turn up on the world service every time I switch it on. You are now expected to be this spokesman for what’s happening in Libya.
Hisham Matar: Yeah, it’s terrible.
Hari Kunzru: And, you know, you’re kind of translating between, at the moment, New York and Libya. And you say that’s terrible. That’s not a comfortable role for you?
Hisham Matar: Yes, I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I don’t enjoy it. But it’s not the time for enjoyment. I have to do some things that I don’t enjoy and what’s happening in Libya is so extraordinary and so magnificent, and one of those very few moments in my life—I mean, I like to think I feel generally happy to be alive—but I feel really deeply thrilled that I was alive to witness what has happened in Libya. And in Egypt and Tunisia, because that’s very connected.
Hari Kunzru: You’ve spent a lot of your life in Egypt, as well.
Hisham Matar: Yeah, yeah.
Hari Kunzru: Again, at our conversation outside you were describing something I hadn’t heard about which is the extraordinary artistic and journalistic ferment that’s happened after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt.
Life in Libya was extraordinarily different from life in Egypt and Tunisia, and most other Arabic countries, in the sense that civic life was completely decimated.
Hisham Matar: And legal. It has rejuvenated cultural life. But also legal life. You know, lawyers are starting to talk about how you approach justice when somebody, for example, a torturer who worked under Mubarak wasn’t breaking the—
Hari Kunzru: The law.
Hisham Matar: How do you address it now when the law has changed? Very interesting questions. But culturally yes, in Egypt, there [are] a lot of new galleries, new avant-garde cinemas. And Libya has more than 150 newspapers and magazines that started up in the last six months. This is a country that had, you know, no magazines or newspapers—
Hari Kunzru: Yeah—
Hisham Matar: —that didn’t belong to the government. And most of it is very bad. But it’s okay. [Laughs.] It’s a start. Somebody for example is talking about starting up a marathon. This might not seem like a huge event, but we weren’t allowed to have a bloody marathon. Now we can talk about having a marathon! It’s fantastically exciting! And these little acts of expression are— there’s a women’s committee that meets and talks in very abstract and very concrete ways about what it means to be a woman in the world. Wonderful! Life in Libya was extraordinarily different from life in Egypt and Tunisia, and most other Arabic countries, in the sense that civic life was completely decimated. So you couldn’t meet up and have a society that discusses… the moon. It doesn’t matter what it is. You couldn’t set up a magazine… a knitting magazine. And you forget how important knitting magazines are. And the process in getting together to set up a knitting magazine…there’s transferable skills, you know? So that sort of training, in social organizing…
Hari Kunzru: You don’t really have the instincts of a journalist. This is not who you are. You’re uncomfortable with the requirement to speak in this public way.
Hisham Matar: But it’s even different, Hari. But it’s also been a wonderful challenge. To try to—
Hari Kunzru: To try to step up to that.
Hisham Matar: It’s been good.
Hari Kunzru: So what is the role, or is there a role for a novelist in trying to shape the events, either in Egypt or in Libya? I mean, as a Libyan do you find that back in Tripoli…finding yourself scratching your head, organizing a committee, wondering how you got there?
I don’t want to be doing. I am happy with being a writer.
Hisham Matar: No, I mean, I think the wonderful thing is that now the novelist is not going to be told what to do. Because before under these regimes we were always nudged, in this direction or in that direction. So there’s an excitement in the sense to be free. To be free as a novelist. But also you know when you write a few articles about a revolution there’s a romance about the writer and the revolution so they exaggerate your effect. Actually, you feel very useless as a writer in a revolution. Because there’s not really much you can do. You can describe, you can say. But, I mean, bakers are far more useful. Bakers have been very useful in Libya, you know, feeding people. It’s important stuff. You hear all these stories about people who have set up camp to cook for the rebels, these are concrete ways you can help the revolution. But sitting on your desk trying to describe why this is important, it’s after the event but in a way, it’s good, it’s good to be reminded how useless you are. It’s good to be reminded how much of an outsider, existentially, the writer is; we are. We’re outsiders. We look at the march, we can’t join it. We are all perched on the trees.
Hari Kunzru: This all sounds like the kind of age-old anxiety of the writer: I should be doing rather than writing.
Hisham Matar: Yeah, I don’t want to be doing. I am happy with being a writer. I am protected. You know how vulnerable it is.
Hari Kunzru: I quite admire that because I get suckered into doing, a bit too much doing, really.
Hisham Matar: I was surprised when somebody from the Council contacted me and said, early on in the days, would you like to… The way they put it was, would you like to…
Hari Kunzru: Ah, so you were approached, by the…?
Hisham Matar: Yeah, yeah…
Hari Kunzru: So you could be running a tank battalion now…had you said yes… [Laughs.]
Hisham Matar: No, no, no. They know I don’t have many muscles. It was more about a diplomatic role. The way they phrased the question really was very helpful to me, because it annoyed me. So I quickly said no. And it was “Are you happy doing what you’re doing or do you want to do something more…you know?”
Hari Kunzru: Oh yeah. So do you want to be actually less useless?
Hisham Matar: Are you “content?” was the word. Are you content or do you want to…? I said, you know, actually, I am not content.
Hari Kunzru: Ah, that’s passive-aggressive, isn’t it?
Hisham Matar: I am not content with doing more, I am not content with what I am doing, I am fixed on not being content, you know. In the sense, I refuse.
Hari Kunzru: [Laughs.]
Hisham Matar: History is filled with these people, no? With writers who… You know, sometimes I reflect on writers who have been sucked in by…
Hari Kunzru: Ah yes, standing on the barricade and wondering how you quite got there.
Hisham Matar: Yeah. I think one of things that tells us that Charles de Gaulle was really a great man is that he chased André Malraux, over and over and over, [saying] “Be minister.” After liberation he goes off to this celebrated novelist, and says to him “Would you be my minister of culture?” And Malraux says, “No, I am not interested.” So de Gaulle tries to flatter him. He says, “But, you know, there’s nobody like you; you’ll be amazing.” Malraux said, “No, thank you.” So de Gaulle tries to manipulate him. He says, “But you know, if you don’t become minister, [then] I’m not responsible for French culture.” Eventually he succeeds. The moment he succeeds is recorded by his wife, Yvonne de Gaulle. She says that she was asleep, de Gaulle tiptoes into the room, stands against the window, he’s unbuttoning his military uniform jacket. She turns on the light. “Where were you, darling?”she says. And he says to her “Tonight, I assassinated Malraux.”
Hari Kunzru: [Laughs.]
Hisham Matar: It takes a great man to know that, though, no?
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