Q&A with Charbel Kattan
16 December 2011
When did you begin writing "Suitcases of Memory" and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I began writing "Suitcases of Memory" in the middle of 2007, but a year before that, I had begun to feel an almost unbearable need to write pressing upon me, and I had had the idea of the lost suitcases for a long time after a little incident which happened in Beirut airport, to do with the loss of my own case. But before beginning, I made a study of novel techniques, especially the aspects of conflict and suspense, and novel characters, and from time to time I would urge myself on to writing. But as a Western novelist has said: "In the end, one has to shut up, sit down and write". So, I sat down and wrote. As for the inspiration, it began with those happy hours I spent in my childhood with a book in my hands, which took me out of my present to worlds of imagination and emotion. As well as (feeding) my interest in the question of identity which has occupied me all my life - and here I am not talking about nationality or belonging but rather human identity, meaning "Who am I?" - writing helps me to discover myself.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you completed it?
It took about a year and a half, not counting the time taken making corrections and changes to improve it. I don't know how I managed to keep going, being so far away from the (Arabic) literary environment. Writing seemed to me as if it were just a dream. All this time I was in South Africa living a normal life between my family and my job.
How long have you lived in South Africa and has your residency there affected the novel?
I moved to South Africa in 1990. In fact, South Africa has played two contradictory roles in spurring me on to write. In my first years here, I worked in the library of the same university where I had studied and discovered there a large number of Arabic books and novels. So I ended up reading more than two hundred novels by writers from different Arab countries. A love of the novel took root in me and the seeds of writing began to grow inside me. But the distance of South Africa from the (Arabic) literary environment dampened that strong fire within, until I experienced what I would call an "awakening", which came unexpectedly, in the midst of the busyness of daily life.
Is there a Lebanese community and are there literary activities in South Africa?
Unfortunately, the Lebanese community is relatively small, and most of them are third generation and don't speak Arabic. As for literary activities, they don't exist at all. Even now, some of my acquaintances here don't even know that I have written a novel and what makes things worse is that apart from one, all Lebanese satellite channels have been disconnected, because of the geographical distance. I am thirsty for everything literary and have only the internet to quench this thirst.
How have readers and critics reacted to the novel?
Readers have always reacted positively. Every time I meet one of them, without exception, they confess that they read the novel in a single day or two days, so this for me is proof of its success, at least in creating suspense. I have been disappointed by the small number of critical articles written about it and the lack of notice it has received, perhaps because I am far away from Lebanon and the press and literary milieu there.
Have you been influenced by any of the longlisted or shortlisted International Prize for Arabic Fiction novels?
Without flattery, I can say that the International Prize for Fiction deserves credit for helping me in my writing. When I decided to write, I began to hunt for news about novels and writers. When I discovered the Prize and read about it, it was important to me, particularly the novels which reach the final stages. When I visited Beirut, I bought a number of the successful novels from the first year like "Sunset Oasis" and "Walking in the Dust". Every year after that, I made an effort to get hold of the shortlisted novels. I re-read the winning novels several times, like "Azazeel" and "Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles". Actually, a few weeks ago, I began writing an article about the technique of "mirroring" in the novel, using "Throwing Sparks" by Abdo Khal to show how this technique works; it is apparent in the story of the girl Tuhani who represents something which happened in the past which affects the hero.
Do you have a literary project planned for the future?
I am now working on my second novel and have many ideas about the future. I pray to God to give me the strength to continue, since writing has become fundamental to my life, even if I am a late beginner. The writer writes the novel but it also writes him. There is a complementary relationship between the two, and one doesn't deserve more credit than the other. I need my novels just as they need me.