Interview with Shortlisted Author Mohsine Loukili


Where were you when the shortlist was announced? What was your reaction?

On the morning of the shortlist announcement, I headed to Agadir beach. Whenever I feel nervous, I go to the beach. Yes, I was nervous. The announcement of a shortlist for a prize as big as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is no ordinary affair. This time it meant more than ever since I am one of the nominated authors. I lay on the sand and waited with my eyes on the time. Once the calls and messages started coming in at the moment of the announcement, I knew that I had made it to the shortlist. In one moment, I recalled Sophie looking out on the ocean from the terrace of her home, contemplating the ships of the Portuguese. I thought that beautiful, rebellious Sophie Zahy deserves to live again in another novel. I also saw the faces of Pedro, Ghaytha, El-Ayaat and El-Nagy. I spaced out until the ringing of my phone brought me back to reality to hear a warm voice congratulating me on making the IPAF shortlist. It was an extraordinary moment. A moment when I came closer to a dream I had years ago. Without thinking, I screamed as loud as I could, “Long live literature!” When I looked back, there were a lot of people looking at me strangely. At the edge of the ocean was the Oufella mountain, standing as proud as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I thought of climbing it again as I once did years ago. I would not grow tired, my heart swelling with happiness.

The novel is dedicated to future generations. Tell us more about this dedication and about the relationship between the past, present, and future.

The dedication is for our children and grandchildren. For years, as I studied history, I felt that our ancestors did not understand their past or present to the best degree. And our humble present was the objective product of this failure. They left behind mostly poor, ignorant peoples, whereas other nations built civilizations and established societies that are aware, knowledgeable and modern. It was we who had to pay for this discrepancy between the peoples of both sides who are separated by only a few miles. Today many of our children dream of a future there, of a promising life beyond the seas. They ride the waters of the ocean in boats of death to reach this desired life: the El Dorado on the West Side. I feared that our grandchildren will repeat the same mistakes and would adopt the same mistaken belief. That we have misread our past, misunderstood our present which shapes their lives. From here came the sincere request: please don’t judge us on what the flood has done to us. The current that has pushed everything forward is stronger than mere understanding and rereading history. We might understand the present through a perfect formula, but our understanding does not necessarily guarantee the life we want for our future generations. Perhaps they will understand us better. A message that means we are thinking of them, and that we try to give our best to contribute to building the future that will be their present.

Were you surprised by any critical readings of The Prisoner of the Portuguese?

To be honest, many of the readings were brilliant, to the extent that they could be described as surprising because they were able to touch upon profound aspects of The Prisoner of the Portuguese. Readers received the novel with passion and critics paid it special attention and with great skill understood its goals.  A critic can surprise a novelist with a brilliant reading as much as a novelist can surprise a critic with a sublime novel. Both are partners in creating a canvas that is only complete with the beauty of what they write together.

Tell us about the research you did for the novel. What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing about this time period in Morocco’s history?

With every new narrative, I try to read as many references as possible. I brought home all publications that I could get my hands on from private and public bookstores. I am entirely aware that taking the pulse of people’s reality, their thoughts and preoccupations in a certain time period is an important criterion of how successful a work is, and also in choosing the language that fits the time period. I also tried, in addition to obtaining the traditional references, to find others that offered differing views to complete the picture. I read a lot, and with a passion. I adore history. As for the biggest challenge I faced when writing about this time period, it was the fact that most references spoke of sultans and battles, victories and defeats, whereas they miss the news of the simple ordinary people and the details of their lives. They were missing because historians were preoccupied with grand happenings and epics. A considerable part of the novel implies that the simple person contributes greatly to making history.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you usually begin your literary projects in January. Do you have any other writing rituals?

First of all, writing to me is my entire life, that is, I dedicate my life to writing. Everything revolves around writing, supplementing and serving it. Thus, writing rituals take on profound proportions. It is something of the rituals of a worshipper. I might differ from others somewhat. I write more when surrounded by noise than by silence. I prefer writing in cafés, public spaces, and stations. Sometimes I take the bus somewhere I hadn’t decided upon beforehand. Change of place drives me to write differently.

Which authors influenced you as a writer?

Without thinking, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love everything that he writes. Every once in a while, I reread Love in the Time of Cholera, A Hundred Years of Solitude, and Autumn of the Patriarch. I am also a fan of Paul Auster’s. His novel, Oracle Night, is a literary masterpiece. In terms of Arab writers, I cannot overlook Naguib Mahfouz. He is an exceptional writer to whom Arabic literature owes a lot.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Haruki Murakami’s novels; I reread Kafka on the Beach. This writer introduces me to a different and beautiful culture. He truly is inventive.