Interview with shortlisted author Said Khatibi


We hear from shortlisted author Said Khatibi about his novel Firewood of Sarajevo.

Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?

I was at my father’s wake in Bou Saada south of Algiers. In the afternoon I turned on my phone to reply to some text messages. I had received a message from my publisher informing me of the news. It was an emotionally charged moment. I was happy that Firewood of Sarajevo was shortlisted. I recalled the time when I was busy with the draft, writing and rewriting with much passion and enjoyment. I think I gave my best at the time of writing.

Is the mind frame for journalistic writing different from fiction writing for you?

There is a deeply entrenched literary tradition which seems to be dying out in modern times, that the majority of writers were once journalists. In Algeria for example, the first generation of novelists worked in journalism, including Muhammed Deeb, Kateb Yacine, El Taher Wattar and others. Journalism, as is well known, relies heavily on writers. Written journalism and literature are very different things but they are close and each benefits from the other.

Tell us about why you chose Firewood of Sarajevo as the title.

Sarajevo Firewood is the title of the screenplay which will be written by the female narrator. It is the same title that the male narrator will use to write his story. Sarajevo and Algiers are cities enclosed by bushes, and firewood is a part of daily life. The novel mentions how the last century began in Sarajevo and how it ended. The first world war erupted there and the century ended with the 1990s war. Algiers could see a reflection of itself there.

Despite stressing the importance of identity in the novel, it seems as if wars and struggles are similar, and so are countries. How do you reconcile the two views?

The idea of the novel was born from being “surprised” at the similarity. I was not preoccupied with writing about two wars, but rather about the survivors of the tragedy, about humans and their pursuit of salvation. I wanted to experience with them healing from the war and liberating oneself from its mutations and the aftermath. At a quick first glance, one would say that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Algeria are geographically distant, but gradually, you will find that both mirror one another to a great extent.

Why do your main characters return to their homelands despite everything that happens to them? Is identity geographically linked?

An Algerian only leaves his country to return to it, and the same goes for a Bosnian. Both are in a state of constant travelling and have not resolved their relationship to history or identity. They go in circles and live with pending questions. The novel does not replace history in answering them, but it is a fictional work that can open up loopholes and draw attention to what historians have overlooked, in order to reach what others have neglected.

The novel does not follow a traditional linear narrative. Is this a personal preference or a literary necessity?

In my opinion, in order to understand what happened in Algeria or in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end of the last century, looking at one era is not enough, we must return to past decades, to the aftermath of World War II and its repercussions on the Balkan territories. We must also understand what happened in the Liberation War in Algeria and the time immediately after that. This is how we can discuss and write about the modern history of the two states.

Which authors influenced you as a novelist?

I do not have one answer to that question. The influences change as I get older. I read many Arabic and foreign works, fiction, philosophy and history, biographies, poetry, video tapes and memoirs. And many works have influenced me, too many to list here.

What are you reading now? Has your reading list been influenced by the Coronavirus stay at home recommendations?

For me, not a lot has changed under quarantine, given that my daily work continues, with the difference that I work from home instead of the office. But it is an exceptional atmosphere filled with anxiety and contemplation. We feel its weight and pressure every hour. So I find myself these days in the mood to return to philosophy books that I had put off reading before.