March 8, 2015
Hilary Plum interviews Youssef Rakha in ‘Music and Literature’

Hilary Plum interviews Youssef Rakha in ‘Music and Literature’

Below is an excerpt, read the whole interview here.


Youssefl Rakha: I go on about this so as to put you in the picture: the nineties, when I started showing my writing to people—that’s when the clash between younger prose poets and older guardians of the poetic ancien régime took place. This is partly of course what The Crocodiles is about. So, when I started writing, I found myself writing prose poems though I thought I wanted to write short stories.

But, since I thought short stories were one-page lyrical pieces with a strong music to them that required little or no narrative, maybe I actually wanted to write poems. I did write short stories eventually, more story-like short stories that were published in Flowers of the Sun, my first book, but except for one or two—I remember “The Hakimi Maqama,” which was a kind of appendix toThe Sultan’s Seal, written for the Beirut 39 anthology in 2009—I haven’t written short stories in Arabic since Flowers of the Sun was published in 1999. I think you’re right, though: it tends to be a momentary plunge into one form or another, except that poetry can never be planned in the same way. For nearly six years when I was too depressed about the Cairo literary scene to write with a view to publication—and I was busy being a journalist in English—I only ever wrote poems. They would come to me every once in a long while, often as good as they were going to be from the first draft, and until 2005 when I started writing the nonfiction portraits of Arab cities that would eventually lead to the fictional portrait of Cairo you worked on, poems were enough. It wasn’t until The Sultan’s Seal that, inspired by canonical books—which almost always have both verse and prose on the same page—I thought of consciously combining poetry with other registers of language in the same book.


Bolaño also said that Antwerp, an early, short novel that is a sequence of exactly the kind of poem-stories that I started with, was the only fiction of his that did not embarrass him. I can relate to that to some extent. Novels are clunky monsters, compared to poems. They can be of their time to a greater extent, and are more compromised if not by their salability then simply through being accessible. In the end I don’t know, though. Writing poetry is such a temperamental, on-and-off activity it can feel like something you should be doing on the side. In this sense poems are too easy—they happen or they don’t—whereas novels or even nonfiction books take real toil and come off with a different sense of accomplishment. Needless to say it was from Bolaño that I got the idea of imagining poets, making writers the heroes of what is being written, though it wasn’t so much The Savage Detectives—which is more similar to The Crocodiles on the surface—as that impossibly nonchalant, biblical, magnificent thing, 2666.


Hilary Plum: So often thoughts about the novel seem caught up with the loud ideas you mention about the “death of the novel”—this continual nowadays anxiety about what the novel cannot contain or do or be in the contemporary world. Are the failures of the novel to blame for our failures as—readers, citizens, revolutionaries, lovers, etc.? This isn’t a good question, but it’s one that it seems people keep wanting to ask, and sometimes I’m among them. Thoughts like: Is there a novel through which we could better become ourselves, etc., a novel through which we could deserve our better selves, and would we know how to read it if there were . . . ?

The Crocodiles takes on such questions—broadly, the relationship between literature and politics—beautifully, in many ways, and here’s just one:

And though we went on acting as though what was written in the papers didn’t concern us, it seems to me that what we guessed at when we felt that the space in which we lived was shrinking, that our places were growing too narrow to hold us and our future, was that we, with our myths and disappointments, with the stories that made lovers of us before there was ever a chance to sincerely question if we were really poets . . . that we were the ones who were shrinking the spaces and narrowing the places.

I hope it’s fair now to ask you a question you once asked me: What can a writer do in the middle of the world’s daily tumult and horror—can a writer do anything at all?

YR: I think as individuals with questions, with voids to circle around, there are books through which we can better know and so in some sense be wholer versions of ourselves. Yes. But not as consumers or receptacles of the kind of discursive trash and commercial brainwashing that so often pass for informed public opinion, humanitarian concern, or moral-political commitment, and certainly not as public figures or players of collective roles.

I think literature does provide a methodology for being who we are in a relevant or rewarding way—as individuals with experience and information who have an interest in knowing the truth, some truth. I’m not sure there is something better or worse about it but there is definitely something truer or more meaningful in context, in the sense that unless you’re working with ideas and feelings, with people that affect your knowledge of who you are or what it means to be this person, writing becomes not just vapid but also boring. And by the same token if it doesn’t touch a deep part of us as readers, or if as readers we don’t want to be touched . . . But before I go on let me try and respond to one thing your question implies about the death of the novel: the idea that it has died not as a literary form but as a social or moral force.

If the novel as a post-seventeenth-century European phenomenon once defined or helped to improve society and culture in a broad sense—if it once dictated tastes, spread attitudes, or formulated the zeitgeist—it’s obvious that it hasn’t been able to do that as thoroughly since the emergence of audiovisual and electronic media. Of course we can ask whether, as an aspect of history, novel writing can be a beneficent collective force, but my point is in the end it shouldn’t be. For me there is the extra fact that in the Arab public sphere even in the twentieth century novels were never as important as poetry—well, verse, read out loud—and that makes it harder to ask the question. But I think writing or reading with the express purpose of improving life is a dreary path to tread. A book does have to be about something, but that’s not the same as expecting it to serve a function, however indispensable. Surely it’s by this kind of logic that crappy Arabic novels become bestsellers in the West, because they “tell us about an obscure culture” or express that culture’s “hope for democratic transformation.” In other words, they satisfy our fake desire to know others by having those others themselves confirm our innate superiority. In the end I don’t think writers are in the business of edifying, and it seems to me they entertain only incidentally, through qualities inherent to storytelling and the effective expression of emotion. But even in the seventeenth century, I like to think novels had less to do with “making the world a better place” than quietly, unobtrusively, one person at a time, making sense of the world.
So if the death of the novel means it’s no longer relevant to history at the populist or democratic level, I’d say the novel was born dead.

None of this is to imply that writing should be purposeless or obscurantist. I’m saying a novel is an artifact of aesthetic and intellectual interest rather than an anthropological resource or a manual of moral instruction, but I think it is above all an accessible epistemological exercise.