Interview with shortlisted author Miral al-Tahawy
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was at home, trying to avoid the anticipation by keeping busy or sleeping. It was 2 am in Arizona. I turned off all social media and put my phone away. I knew that my friend and publisher Fatma Alboudy would call me either way. When I heard the phone ring, I woke up and began receiving congratulatory messages. The first were from fellow longlisted authors Ahmed El-Fakharani, May Telmissany, Ahmad Abdulatif, and Nasser Iraq, consecutively. My happiness was combined with this joyful feeling of love and gratitude.
Several of your works are about the living conditions of migrants in their new homes. Your writing highlights the miserable side of this life. Is this how you view life in the diaspora?
Diaspora and exile are difficult experiences by nature. They evoke feelings of existential alienation and identity anxiety. I often think of this quote from Edward Said:
“Exile is one of the saddest fates. In pre-modern times banishment was a particularly dreadful punishment since it not only meant years of aimless wandering away from family and familiar places, but also meant being a sort of permanent outcast, someone who never felt at home…”
It is true that illegal immigration, forced migration, wars, displacement, ethnic persecution, and cultural clashes are timeless issues which novels will never tire of portraying. This is like other major issues of humanity which literature has tackled, especially in recent years as the world witnesses the highest numbers of migration and displacement seen since World War II. It’s also true that I wrote my novel Brooklyn Heights, which was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction some years ago, about the diaspora, identity crises, alienation, and cultural/civilizational clashes resulting from immigration. These are the existential cracks that humanity is experiencing.
But I think that my novel Tales from the Town of Rising Sun is not a novel about immigrants. But rather a novel about the idea of survival and seeking salvation on the other side. It’s about misery, poverty, and class-based exploitation. About countries that are inviting only in photos, but which are, in reality, a big graveyard for the dreams of the simple.
The novel is about the diaspora, about the marginalized in exile, about the poor immigrants who live through many trials in an attempt to survive. It is about those who smuggle into coveted lands illegally and who live in ghettos and seaside or mountainous border towns such as the town of my story – which I have metaphorically called the Town of Rising Sun – or other cities of displacement. Daily life in these places of voluntary exile is transformed into a desperate attempt to survive ghosts of the past and to escape the harshness of the present. The novel’s characters are not the heroes, the narrative is about how this world creates its own bubble and lives on the margins of luxury resorts.
The novel is about living on the margins of culture and society, about the ordeal of the immigrant who has become absent from the homeland and marginalized through his colour, ethnicity, language, and culture in his new homeland of choice, and who thus lives an alienation which he cannot overcome. This alienation creates constant nostalgia for a past, land, culture, language and world that no longer exist. Accordingly, the essence of this experience is insurmountable misery and sadness.
You’ve done an excellent job depicting all the characters in this novel–each portrayed with great skill and meticulous detail, as if they are all main characters. Did you intend to employ this method of characterization as opposed to the traditional expectations of main and secondary characters?
Many critics, such as Rasheed El Enany, Mahmoud Abdel Shakour and others, described the novel as a mosaic, which is an accurate description. The novel does not rely on the traditional structure, and it tries to capture a panoramic view of this town that has become a quagmire of wasted dreams. It is a mosaic where some characters take up more space, but which is incomplete without them all: the marginalized of all colors and shapes, from all ethnic backgrounds: thieves, runaway workers, loafers around the bay. It is an integrated world brought together only by the adventure that ended, or began, on the pavements of this town called Rising Sun.
One of the recurring images in the novel is the life of seals. Tell us more about their significance and why you chose this particular creature.
There are myths and scientific research that analyze the immigration of creatures from philosophical and existential perspectives, which can help shed light on the question: What mysterious forces inspire the desire to migrate in all these creatures?
Birds’ migration continues to raise questions regarding the trails they follow, and the migration of salmon is still a mystery. As for the journey of seals, that is also unusual and full of symbols. I read a lot about the migration of different creatures in search of an answer to this simple question: why does a person leave his first home? And why, at the end of his life, does he feel an intense nostalgia for it? How does this nostalgia take shape and become an inevitable obsession that accompanies life’s end, manifesting in the desire of most immigrants to be buried in their original homelands?
My relationship with seals started when I lived for many years on the West Coast of the United States, specifically, California. Watching them on Monterey Bay was one of my daily rituals. I would sit for hours to watch them in labor, nursing their young on the sand, then I would watch some of the dead bodies get thrown about by the sea. Then I began reading about these mammals and their strange journeys north and south. Migration is a forced cycle in the creature’s life and it is repeated in a miserable way.
It begins with flocks of male seals that migrate to mate with the females on the beach. The males wage bloody wars to win over the females. These are called home wars, waged to start a family. Then the male swarms withdraw after winning, to undergo a collective migration, leaving behind the impregnated females to go through labor. Then they nurse and feed their young and train them to hunt. In brief, these creatures live their lives through a series of group migrations, filled with battles and wounds. After a short, or long, life cycle the swarms return to the same beach where they were born, to die in the place that witnessed their birth.
None of the relationships in the novel – between spouses, friends, or parents and children – are healthy. And as readers, we feel sorry for them but don’t necessarily empathize with them. Is this the result of their diasporic life?
I’m glad this is your opinion. In fact, many critics commended characterization in the novel. Poet and critic Sayed Mahmoud said that Nea’am ElKhabaz will long remain in the memory of the Arabic novel, which is a testimonial I highly value and consider to be high praise. My friend and writer Mansoura Ezeldin said that the characters are unforgettable, another testimonial I wouldn't have dreamed of.
Literary experiments do not generally occur in the framework of normal, healthy characters. In fact, I was not occupied with how normal my characters were, but I was keener on portraying their humanity, with all its crudeness, violence, niceties and misery, while steering clear of traditional stereotypes. Trying to empathize with and understand the motivations for each character requires a great deal of maturity which allows the writer to accept these characters with all their weaknesses, meanness and many distortions. I only wanted to carve out characters that would be hard to forget, to get over, to meet again, because they are so true, which is everything that a writer aspires to.
There is no recipe for creating a successful or enduring fictional character. There is only dedication to understanding, portraying and capturing these characters. I lived with these characters who undoubtedly took shape in an unconventional way, and who suffered greatly both before and after their displacement, and whose distortions are deeper than can be erased by escaping them. I drew Nea’am ElKhabaz, Nagwa, Mimi Dong, Selim, and Ahmed El Wakil with impartiality and empathy and sometimes, with irony. Every one of these characters, whether main or secondary, constitutes a major part of the narrative structure. They are part of that mosaic which only becomes complete with subtle human details.
Which authors impacted you as a novelist?
This is a difficult question. Perhaps I won’t be able to remember all the authors that have impacted me. In every stage of my life, there were authors that I was passionate about. I spent my life studying literature – Arabic literature – and I specialize in modern literature. This academic study followed by an academic career allowed me to read many texts.
In general, I read a lot and try to follow everything that is published in the Arab world. By way of my studies, I studied Arabic literature from the classical years to the modern. In addition to that, my work as a professor of modern Arabic literature means that I follow everything that is published. This gives me the feeling that I never left that scene. I have many writer friends. These friendships are the only world that dissipates feelings of alienation and loneliness in the diaspora.
My literary taste was formed by reading classical literature, including the most important books. There are many that have impacted me: say, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Hazm, Taha Hussein, and more. I read all the Russian classics.
In American literature, I love Marilynne Robinson and her trilogy which started with her beautiful novel, Housekeeping. I believe she is one of the most important voices in modern American literature. I love John Fante, his life and death, and how he was rediscovered with the rediscovery of his beautiful novel, Ask the Dust, and his three famous works known as the Bandini trilogy. I never stop reading Agota Kristof from The Notebook to The Proof. I come back to her again and again. I have a copy of her memoir, entitled Illiterate and I have memorized some of the passages of this small, beautiful book about war, displacement and home.
What are you reading now?
I am re-reading Arabian Nights (A Thousand and One Nights). It is a creative text. Every time I pick it up, I discover so much about Arab culture and heritage. I am reading Sexuality in Islam by Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and Scheherazade Goes West by Fatima Mernissi for research purposes, as I am writing my book The Female Body As Traditionally Related by Women where I discuss how Scheherazade’s discourse was generally masculine, especially in describing its relationship to a woman’s body and sexuality.