Interview with longlisted author Wacini Laredj
When did you begin writing May — The Nights of Isis Copia and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I started thinking about it before 2016 when I found a strange sentence in one of May Ziade’s books that I imagined she were saying with great pain: “I wish after my death someone would do me justice.” I felt as if this sentence was addressed to me. Perhaps it is the reason for the entire novel. I started working from there. I didn’t know how to portray May Ziade’s character or with which approach. I did not intend to reproduce her biography – this was not my concern at all. This was first and foremost a novel – a fictional text. I had to find an artistic way to do that. I had to learn about this world; May’s world, her surroundings and relationships.
I read everything that had to do with her, about her life and writings; knowing beforehand that it could be of limited use.
But I found the core of the novel: the time of her house arrest in Usfouriyya. I learned of her link to the American University and her lectures there. The university received me and offered me a two-week writing residency in Beirut which was enough time to visit the places relevant to her including Usfouriyya, the village Shahtoul and to meet with the family, the elder Gregarious Ziade who helped me with a lot of information.
I went into isolation after that for about a year to write the novel and the information I got was only a way to write a fictional text based on a highly sensitive personal experience.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
I wrote the novel in several places where May lived. In Palestine, Al-Nasra, Ramallah where she was born, her religious and early life took place. Then in Beirut, her family, studies and disappointment of first love. Cairo, the setting of her genius and the beginning of her tragedy and death. But the final draft of the novel was in Paris where she spent 1916/1917. Prior to writing was the preparation phase which included visiting her hometown in Lebanon and what remains of Usfouriyya to get to know the places. I also visited the grave where she is buried because it is an important place in the novel. Her residences in Egypt or what remains of them. Her schools in El Nasra and her hometown. All these places helped me write without being restricted to them.
The novel itself stands in parallel to her biography “The Nights of Usfouriyya” which she wrote in Usfouriyya and which was lost entirely. In this sense, the novel becomes a fictional biography in relation to the real lost one.
I can say that it took two years from preparation to completion which took place in Paris where I live and work and where my academic and literary life are based.
How have readers and critics received it?
In this regard, things have been perfect. I think it was one of my best received novels by Arab audiences, perhaps due to the sensitivity of the topic. My criteria for this are two things: First, the number and diversity of the editions published. It was printed in several Arab capitals simultaneously. In Cairo alone it was printed five times to make it available to the Egyptian public at an affordable price given the collapse of the Egyptian pound. In Algeria, a special edition was published for the Algerian and Moroccan audiences at Algeria’s biggest publishing house. Syria got a special issue given the difficult situation there, the closing up of the Arab book market and to avoid piracy. Palestine too got a special issue from Dar Al-Ahliya which was signed at the Palestine fair in Ramallah. And there was another edition in Beirut from Dar Al-Adab that is distributed in the Arab World.
The second factor is book fairs. The novel was received well in all Arab book fairs and cultural occasions, particularly in Amman, Palestine, Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Algeria and others. In addition, there was interest from specialized academic and media readings. It was written about a lot which quickly paved the way for marketing across the Arab world.
What is your next project after this novel?
There is one project that is almost done but its publication was delayed by the author himself. I am now putting the final touches on the second part of the novel: The Prince: Stranger to the House. It is about the Levantine period, the relationship between Ibn Araby and the Masonic period that followed his saving over 150 Christians. The novel is almost ready and will be at the Algerian book fair at the end of this year and at other Arab book fairs too.
I am also finishing up a biography of May in French as part of the “One Hundred and One Series” that is overseen by the Arab World Institute in Paris. The book is also in its final phases.