Two writers discuss their craft

2013-03-26 00:00

LAST week saw a buzz of literary activity in and around Durban, with the Time of the Writer Festival. For the 16th time, the Centre for Creative Arts on the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal hosted writers’ panels, book launches, workshops and events around the theme of Writing a New World. Witness Books Editor Margaret von Klemperer spoke to two of the participants, local writer Damon Galgut and Palestinian Susan Abulhawa.

Soft-spoken, serious and ambivalent

DAMON Galgut is a slightly intimidating figure. Soft-spoken and serious, he gives the impression that there is no room for frivolity in his world view. But when he answers questions, you feel he has given them his full attention and answered to the best of his ability.

His last book, In a Strange Room, was his second to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which is probably the most important literary prize currently available for fiction. It tells the story of three journeys undertaken by one central character — Damon — and it is obviously autobiographical.

“From a writing point of view, it’s not fiction at all — there’s nothing made up in it. But I made a point of labelling it as fiction. The real subject is memory, and I regard memory as fiction,” he says.

As each journey in the book is undertaken by two people, it is obvious the memories of his companions would not be the same as Damon’s.

“We make up stories of our lives in a way that suits us,” explains Galgut, agreeing that, were he to write about the same events 10 years from now, the stories he would tell would be different.

With his next book, which should appear next year, Galgut says he is going back to a more conventional approach. Talking about his writing, he says the real challenge for a writer is to make it interesting for himself. “It’s the only hope of making it interesting for the readers,” he said.

When he was six years old, Galgut was diagnosed with cancer. I ask him if he thinks that this has had an effect on his writing and on the way he sees the world.

“It did set me apart, I suppose, and that’s never a good feeling for a child to have. Children are supposed to have an illusion of immortality, but if you are ill, you become aware that you are a mortal being,” he says.

“It can’t help but affect the way you see the world, and that is what I draw on when I write. I’ve been told I have a bleak outlook, although I believe that I view things as realistically as possible. It does seem to me that the world is a bleak place, although I seem to feel lighter in myself as I get older. Perhaps I was given an unexpected gift in that I got the dark stuff over at the beginning.”

Galgut’s writing has brought him acclaim and prizes, and so I ask him about the value of prizes — do they really matter? “I’m very aware that many really worthwhile books are overlooked all the time and numerous quite mediocre ones win. On the one hand, it’s tempting to say they mean nothing, but they offer encouragement, and that is helpful,” he says.

“The Booker shortlisting changed my situation financially, and I’m grateful — I would be lying if I sounded dismissive of that. But I’m a private person and don’t always welcome the attention that being part of the wider literary universe can bring. There is always an ambivalence.”

Last week was Galgut’s first visit to Time of the Writer, and despite his ambivalence about public attention, he is a believer in the value of festivals, seeing them as offering a counterweight of individual exposure to the Internet experience of reading.

“Reading about a book on the Internet is not the same as the interaction with the author at a festival,” is how he puts it. And he doesn’t believe that books and reading are dying. “People have always needed a story to understand their own lives,” he says.

One thing Galgut is not ambivalent about is the value of Internet reader reviews. I ask him if he thinks they are helpful to the cause of books and reading, and get an emphatic “No” in reply. “They are one of the more depressing elements of a writer’s life. The democratisation of critical opinion is not a good thing.”

It is a serious answer from a serious man.

Writing the Palestinian story in exile

EDWARD Said, the renowned intellectual, critic, and advocate of the Palestinian cause, once said that Palestine needs its literature. And nowhere in recent years has this literature been better represented than in Susan Abulhawa’s immensely powerful 2010 novel, Mornings in Jenin. Abulhawa was in Durban last week at the Time of the Writer Festival, and I asked her why literature is so important to a cause or a country.

“The power of fiction is that it speaks on a very different human level from essays or academic writing. It’s not cold prose or numbers of facts. It is told through experience, emotions, love, families and personal adversity. It’s entirely different.”

Abulhawa goes on to talk about the reactions she has had from readers of her book, which tells the story of a Palestinian family from 1948 to the present.

“I have heard from Westerners, who don’t have much idea of what has been happening in Palestine — they can’t believe that all this has gone on in their lifetime and they don’t know about it. I have even had letters from Jewish readers in the United States and Europe, who have thanked me for humanising both villains and victims, and saying they didn’t understand.”

Readers in Israel do not have access to the book: Abulhawa is a strong supporter of and activist for the cultural boycott of Israel.

Abulhawa, small and passionate, says that so often the world sees Palestinians as either crazed terrorists or as pitiable refugees. But, as her novel shows clearly, Palestine, despite more than half a century of war and dispossession, has an educated, highly functioning society, with its own jokes, scandals and love stories. And that is exactly what the novel gives to the reader.

Publication was not straightforward. As soon as the book was available in Britain and Europe it took off, but in the U.S., where Abulhawa lives, it was much slower. “Getting it published in the U.S. was difficult — it could have been the normal difficulty of getting a first novel published, but it’s a Palestinian narrative and there is a strong pro-Israeli bias in the U.S. It’s there in the news, in Hollywood and in literary outlets.”

She explains that even when publishers were sympathetic, they found it easier not to publish.

No one wanted to risk being labelled anti-Semitic. Anything Palestinian is political. And while all good literature has a political standpoint of some kind, it can make publishers nervous.

But now the novel has been published in the U.S. and is deservedly successful. Last year came the first Arabic publication, bringing glowing reviews, and a degree of surprise that a Palestinian living in exile could write a novel of such depth, originally in English.

From the perspective of the Arab world, most of what has been written in English about the Palestinian situation has been by non-Palestinians, and not-authentic.

But exile brings problems. The central character in the latter part of the novel, Amal, calls herself Amy in the U.S. in an effort to assimilate, losing the meaning of her name, which is hope.

As Abulhawa says: “When you are young, you want to fit in. But exile is the life I have lived: I don’t have any other frame of reference. It is an important part of my identity, and it enriches writing and gives a distance.”

She talks about writing students from Gaza with whom she works, via Skype and the Internet.

“Sometimes they are so in the midst of their own stories that they are almost unable to write them. You do need some distance, but maybe it gives a different kind of perspective from the one you have if you are living in a country.”

Abulhawa would love to go back to Palestine. Born in Kuwait to parents who left Palestine in 1967, she managed to get to Jerusalem illegally and lived there until she was kicked out. Now she cannot go back. “Exile sees your language and culture being pilfered from your life,” she says. Her way of getting it back is to write the Palestinian story.

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