Interview with shortlisted author Mahmoud Shukair
Where were you at the shortlist announcement and what was your reaction to the news?
I was at home editing a text I had written before. I was waiting for the shortlist announcement, and when I read the news on social media, it made me happy, even more so than at the time of the longlist announcement. After many friends called to congratulate me on Praise for the Women of the Family reaching the shortlist. Then I was showered with congratulations and good wishes on Facebook which made me even happier.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
It means that I will write more enthusiastically so that my next novel, the outline of which I have been working on for some months now, is more artistically distinguished and commendable.
Do you have writing rituals?
Before writing on a computer, I used to write with an ink pen on lined paper in the morning sometimes and at night most of the time. While writing television series, I used a pencil so that I can erase what I don’t like, and so that I don’t have to have many drafts and white out a final one later, which is even more time-consuming.
When I mastered typing, and that was in 1998, there was a significant development in the number of books I published for adults and children. The computer enabled me to save a lot of time and encouraged me to write at 9 or 10 am, and at many times to continue writing well into the night.
Before writing any new pages, I edit what I wrote the day before, by deleting or adding and to get into writing smoothly.
I am a full time writer since I quit my job 11 years ago. I write almost every day. This ritual of turning writing into a daily habit has enabled me to write at any time.
Why do you write? And for whom?
I write to give meaning to life. Without writing I cannot continue to live. I once said in a seminar, writing is the lung I breathe with. I write for myself first and foremost, in search for balance. I am an anxious person who is provoked by any defect in my real life surroundings or and annoyed by any violation on human values. I try through writing to criticize reality by exposing it and defending noble values, and defending my dignity and that of my fellow countrymen and anyone who aspires to find freedom, justice, serenity and peace.
I write in the hope that my writing will contribute to a more beautiful and sophisticated life.
Which authors do you read? Which writers have influenced you, as a novelist?
I wrote a novel after publishing scores of short story collections. This means that I spent a lot of time in the sphere of the short story. From the beginning I was influenced by writers who wrote short stories and novels at the same time. Here I mean Naguib Mahfouz and Youssif Idris, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. I even translated stories for the latter two.
Later on, I became interested in Japanese novels in translation and particularly Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami which then led to Latin American novels in translation, particularly Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende.
From these readings and from my diligent search for my own voice, the features of my style of writing was characterized by: observing the internal movement of the reality I work in and trying to impact its movement in a way that would contribute to championing the poor, marginalized and oppressed; writing in a simple straightforward way and steering clear of excessive rhetoric and linguistic embellishments; an inclination to delete and economize in narration as much as possible; providing the enjoyment of reading to the audience through irony and creating artistic characters with their own traits that are capable of attracting attention; reference to local environment I live in; investing its heritage in terms of charm, mythology, fantasia and stories; and employing all of the above in my novels.
In the novel Praise for the Women of the Family why did you choose to employ different means of narration such as letters and dreams in addition to the numerous narrators?
As obvious, the main character in this novel is the extended family of AlAbd Allat which descended from the tribe by the same name. they lived in the wilderness off of shepherding, then they moved to a land on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Although the novel sheds light on some characters who were the most prominent throughout the long narrative, yet the family itself remained at the heart of the narrative and is affected both positively and negatively by the behavior of its sons and daughters and by new circumstances and situations.
So this family didn’t stay the same because of time, and society’s developments that left an impact on it and its sons and daughters. To keep up with the developments and changes that the characters experienced, it was necessary to diversify the methods of narration based on the different consciousness of characters and different places. This contributes in showing new dimensions of the contemporary experience of the Palestinian people by placing a segment of this people under the limelight throughout its clash with the Zionist invasion and British mandate. And through placing its values, beliefs and popular culture on the line in a difficult time period.
Having a multitude of voices in the novel is in line with this inclination to observe a wide segment of life and reality. It’s an expression of the individualism that resulted from the dispersal of the family and of the need for social development which limited chances of yielding to the desires and stances of the head of the family as was the case before when the family led a simple life in the wilderness, away from modern day influences.
The novel is not just about describing the conditions of the Palestinian woman but also about the Palestinian man as well. Why did you choose this title?
It’s true that it is about men as well, but the title reflects the bias of Mohamed Junior, the main narrator in the novel, and his wish to defend them and champion their rights in a patriarchal society that does not do them justice and takes away their right to express themselves. The title is taken from a quote that Mohamed Junior says in the novel to the effect that the women of the family are worthy of praise. The title stems from a conviction that makes the liberation of the land impossible in a society that treats its women unjustly and denies them the right to dignity and equality with men.
It also reflects the complicity between the author and the main narrator to empower women by dedicating the title to them as an expression of respect, appreciation and solidarity.