Hisham Matar is a Libyan two-time novelist whose first novel,In the Country of Men (published in 2006), was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. In 1990 his father—a prominent figure in the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi’s regime—was kidnapped and imprisoned, never to see his son again. Matar has contributed to the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times of London, and more, and is now an English professor at Barnard. He is orchestrating the upcoming Barnard International Artists Series. DUNNI ODUYEMI sat down with Matar to discuss his politically charged life and his journey as a writer.
What was the inspiration behind the Barnard International Artists Series?
The intention was to have a forum where students are introduced to the world and issues that preoccupy people that live in different countries, but to do it through the arts. We are inspired by the other wonderful series here called the World Leaders Forum. With the World Leaders Forum, the intention is that we learn about the world through its statesmen and /women, and that’s appropriate—but I also think it remains an assumption that the best people who can tell us about these countries are politicians. And I suppose what we’re saying is perhaps artists are just as capable, maybe even better, at detecting the pulse of their time and of their country.
You mentioned in an interview with NPR that literature doesn’t always have to be comfortable, and that it’s challenging. How does that apply to your experience as a writer and as a professor?
I think the important thing to do in the teaching of English is to remind ourselves and the students that reading is not chiefly what it is often portrayed to be in popular culture, which is this comfortable, middle-class thing. You sink into a lovely, big armchair and you spend time. That’s of course part of it—the entertainment and enjoyment of literature is a lovely thing, we all definitely don’t want to undermine that—but literature is much more complex and at times much more dangerous than that. There is something required of us that is essential when we encounter an important book, something of our soul and of our thinking and our nervous system that is being employed. But also I think that in the interview you were referring to, I meant it in a different way—which is connected to this— which is that in certain places and at certain times, writing certain books can be dangerous. Whether under dictatorship or any environment where there’s intolerance, whether it’s racism or sexism or a totalitarian regime or what have you, that it’s dangerous that way.
You touched on this before when you were comparing the International Artists Series to the World Leaders Forum, but what is it that you think we can learn from literature that we can’t learn from the news?
Well, the news has a very specific orientation and also there is a general feeling that we’re not really getting the whole story with these things. The artist expresses the symptoms of the society; it’s like they’re sort of holding a mirror, which is why they annoy a lot. A lot of artists reflect things and most people don’t like to see our image, especially if it’s done truthfully. If I was really interested in learning about Egypt, then sure, reading the news is important, but that will only tell you certain things. But if I were to read Naguib Mahfouz or Sonallah Ibrahim, in their novels, there are moments where you yourself feel Egyptian. I remember giving a reading once in Ohio, and this young woman who’s never left Ohio says to me, “You know, reading your novel, In the Country of Men, I felt I was a Libyan boy.” We’ve all experienced that. So I think artists remind us of the depth of our humanity, that we are, ultimately, connected to a subterranean network, that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s essentially a common ground.
When you’re writing about events which actually occurred in your life but about which there’s not that much information, how do you straddle the line between nonfiction and fiction, and how do you prevent your work from becoming a reality in your head?
That’s a very good question, particularly because right now I’m writing a book that is nonfiction but to me, it has the temperament and the attitude of a novel, in the sense that I don’t know it. When I’m writing a novel I don’t know everything, I’m discovering it almost like a reader, and with this it’s very similar, even though on some level I do know it because I’m writing about “real” things and “real” people. What it is showing me is something which I’ve always suspected, which is these distinctions between fiction and nonfiction are on some level crude and unhelpful. Not all the words in the world, not all the books in the world, would equal one moment. You can’t capture reality because it is just too much and its nature is so multifaceted.
As a child how aware were you of your father’s political involvement? Did you ever want to follow his lead?
My relationship with my father is complicated because he was such a powerful presence in my life, but at the same time a very liberating one. He didn’t at all even suggest or show a desire for me to follow in his footsteps; he wanted me to be my own man. That was such a generous gift, especially coming from such a powerful character because it showed me you could be incredibly devoted to what you do and be generous. And the more that I mature as a writer, the more I think there is something in common that my father and I have in our professional lives.
Do you feel, with the ongoing conflicts in a lot of Arab nations, that a generation of people with important stories to tell is being produced? How do you think they might tell their stories?
Absolutely, because the authority of the teller has shifted. It’s not just one particular type of journalist or writer, there are so many different voices. I think that maybe what’s happened in the Middle East over the past two or three years is that there was a glimpse—people glimpsed at a possibility for a different reality, and that glimpse has now been shadowed by the smoke of war, but I don’t think it ever leaves you. It’s a glimpse that has an echo; over the years to come I don’t know how or how long or what it’ll achieve. That’s what’s both exciting and frightening about it, is that it has infinite possibilities for things that are wonderful and for things that aren’t so wonderful.