Revitalising force of humanity
Adrian Grima talks to acclaimed British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, who will be reading at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival next weekend.
Selma Dabbagh’s first novel, Out of It, was published by Bloomsbury in December 2011 to widespread acclaim.
In The Guardian, Robin Yassin-Kassab, who read at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival last year, describes her writing as “both literary and accessible, fast-paced, passionate, exuberant and heart-lurching” and predicts that “we'll be hearing much more from Selma Dabbagh”.
She is, in fact, working on a second novel and helping to write a fiction feature film script.
Out of It is a great read. Set mainly in contemporary Gaza, it has the pace in narrative content and sentence structure of a compulsive page-turner and the depth of a contemporary classic feeding from and into a much larger and more complex historical narrative.
The depth also lies in the kind of almost self-conscious metaphorical insight we have come to expect from the richest kinds of literature.
Dabbagh has come up with a novel that handles very big issues with deftness and literary prowess, without for one moment compromising the simple but often elusive art of telling a good story.
Dabbagh’s work is hugely political. Politics are not in the background: they shape the dynamic minds and actions of her protagonists, the complex relationships that develop and sometimes falter.
Perhaps the human stories she tells are so gripping precisely because they reflect the unpredictability of human nature and life’s turn of events and obey the hidden hand of the author.
Besides, if you choose to write about the ongoing occupation of Palestine, probably the occupation par excellence in our collective unconscious, you can’t escape politics: it’s there when you open the water tap and there when you walk into the sunlight of an existence under permanent siege.
Dabbagh acknowledges that when writing about Palestine, “it is very hard to restrain oneself as a fiction writer as there is a high level of misunderstanding about Palestinian history and much misrepresentation, but you do need to hold back. There is understandably a great belief among Palestinians that the story needs to be told, that the purpose of the novel is for it to be a telling of the story of injustice. Whereas the so-called Western novel is generally presumed not to be political, the Palestinian novel is presumed to be political.
“Writing about Palestine in English meant that I was trying to find a way between the two presumptions. In my early drafts, I had a lot more Palestinian history in the novel, but I cut a lot of it out, as I felt it was gratuitous and weighed down the narrative; I could not expect to cover everything in one novel, and I particularly wanted Out of It to be pacy, so it wasn’t the place for much of the historical information.”
The test when deciding what stayed and what was cut was whether or not the relative part was relevant for the development of either character or plot. If it wasn’t, then it went out.
But how does Dabbagh manage to remain focused on the techniques of narration when she is telling such tragic and frustrating tales, like when she slips into italics to narrate protagonist Iman’s crucial encounter with the burnt bodies of Raed and her young student Taghreed?
“Human emotions form the economy that writers trade in. I have not gone through the kind of trauma or loss that the characters in Out of It are living through, particularly in Part I, a Gaza section.
“For the scene you are referring to, I decided to focus in on individual deaths rather than mass scenes of carnage as it is often more moving when you do so. I tried to keep the scene short and for the emotion to be expressed through thoughts, memories and character observations rather than stating what the characters feel, as that flattens it.
“In terms of how you feel as a writer when writing these scenes, you can be fairly cool and technical about it, or occasionally you try to act it out in your mind or think about how you would use your hands in a certain situation etc, in the way an actor would rehearse for a part, but it is harder as you have no script.”
The subject matter, the writer adds, is often distressing.
“I lived in an imaginary Gaza for a long time when writing Out of It and it wasn’t always an easy place to go to, or to leave.”
After she has seen the charred bodies of Raed and Taghreed, Iman wants to act. She wants to go into action and ignore ideology and local politics, as if action can ever be free from ideology.
“I see Iman’s attitude in that chapter, which is a chase scene, as being one of utter desperation,” Dabbagh says. “Her thoughts are quite confused. She is traumatised by what she has just seen and is in a state of abject fury. She has taken a stance, that she is going to act, the hell with everything, and is then trying to justify it retrospectively to build her courage in herself. That she is being manipulated by ideology though, I would say is a given.”
Rashid, one of the protagonists of the novel, fears the hope that could “devastate them all”, but his friend Khalil believes that the only way to get through “is to retain humanity and compassion”.
I ask Dabbagh where she stands and she replies without any hesitation that she is on Khalil’s side on this one. “I believe that one of the most extraordinary things about Palestinian society is how much humanity and compassion there is, despite everything. It is a strong and revitalising force. There is no point getting bitter; you might as well give up then. Anger is one thing, but bitterness is terrible. As for hope, there is definitely a role for that too.’
Dabbagh has been invited to Malta by the British Council to read at this year’s seventh edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, between Thursday and Saturday in Floriana (at the Msida Bastion Historic Garden, near the Floriana Central Public Library). The event is organised by Inizjamed and Literature Across Frontiers.
Dabbagh will be reading her fiction on Friday and will also take part in a discussion with author Suad Amiry, led by Karsten Xuereb, on Saturday.