I've often had a variation of the same question: why attempt to understand our monsters? Why write any book that refracts something like violent extremism into sympathetic characters?
Last year I read both Enard's Compass and Matar's The Return. Both books have stayed with me. The questions posited in these books seem not just to be bleeding into my writing, but also how I continue to live in the world, live with absence, and curiosity. Questions that are now all the more difficult to reconcile with my having shifted writing bases to Malmö in Sweden. I shuttle back and forth as I am continuing my promotional duties in the UK, mostly London. I live between cities. Between voices.
Here, Enard and Matar talk about Compass's translation into English by the brilliant Charlotte Mandel. Language, (Enard is a polyglot), the so-called Orient and the Occident, curiosity and art.
We've landed a truly exceptional artist to voice the audiobook for In Our Mad and Furious City.
Ben Bailey Smith - Doc Brown for those who know him as a performer from his many other works - will be voicing Yusuf, Ardan, Selvon and Nelson. It'll be available on Audible etc on April 19th.
I’ve heard samples. It's captivating, special magic.
I personally put Ben’s name forward for the audiobook and I’m so grateful the team at Tinder Press managed it. The guy has a reputation for a rare kind of integrity and I know he wouldn’t do anything unless he rated it. I wouldn’t want it any other way, and so it means a lot.
And guys, the fact that a fellow NW native (he grew up in Kilburn, Willesden Green) will be voicing the voices in my head for all of you, is astounding. We had long chat yesterday, about art, music, industry fluff, saying no to work, saying yes when you must, finding space for creativity. We spoke about words and spoke about his sister Zadie.
Here he is talking about what he saw in the book:
— Guy Gunaratne (@guygunaratne) March 10, 2018
Saeed I found hilarious, often moving. The choice to depict the experience of living in the occupied territories using satire is stunningly effective.
Moments that have stayed with me include Saeed's watching Yuuad leave the first (and second) time. His falling in love with Baqiyya:
"I mixed my tears with hers, an activity even more likely to preserve marriage than the mixing of blood in the veins of children."
Saeed's son Walaa becoming a fedaiy, the many reasons the boy gives for his choosing to fight while in a stand-off with the authorities. Baqiyya implores him to come out of hiding:
"Lay down your arms! The cellar is too small, you'll suffocate down there!"
"Suffocate? It was to breathe free that I came down into this cellar. To breathe in freedom just once. In my cradle you stifled my crying. As I grew and tried to learn to talk from what you said, I heard only whispers."
I highly recommend this. You'll laugh through the tears.
I read this in tandem with Adonis' Introduction to Arabic Poetics, which I'm burning to write about. But this, it was a fascinating in-the-weeds analysis of the origins and overwhelming resilience of Salafi-Jihadism as a soteriology and political doctrine. The book is structured around specific categories that Maher describes as forming the Salafi-Jihadist project of "progress through regression" - itself a brilliant way to put it, and approach thinking about it.
The categories as I've previously noted were:
"al-walā wa-l-barā", the lines of loyalty and disavowal for the sake of Allah.
"takfīr", which delineates Islam against everything else and protects it against insidious corruption from within. e.g excommunication, banishment from the faith.
"tawhīd and hākimiyya" which explain what legitimate authority should look like and who it should serve. e.g how God's sovereignty is established within a political system.
and "jihad", the method of revolution. Literally means to exert of effort or struggle but also has a legal definition of combat or fighting.
Comprehensive and considerably deepened my understanding of the current conflict in Syria, its international implications as per global terrorism and the various regional conflicts of the last three decades.
I slept on the floor of my study this afternoon. The night was the third, fourth in a row now, where for a series of reasons I haven't been able to sleep for long hours. There seems to be an organised attempt by my two cats to instigate a daily routine better suited to them than for me. One of the cats, a brown long hair, is missing my wife's presence and patience at home. He has become grouchy. He insists upon waking up at 3am to scream at the lights, the walls, the front door, the wind outside. I wake, I pet his coat, he settles and I bury my head under the pillow.
In the early mornings the writing comes out like clay. Though the mood I wake up with still feels good. Perhaps it's the lack of sleep, or morning coffee, but the words that emerge on the page have odd glints of something new buried in them. Every so often though, a great flood comes out where I have to clear it of the lumps. And that's tiring. And that's when I need to rest. But instead I reach for coffee.
Space has helped, my own space and some stillness after a frantic autumn spent clearing away and invoicing for unimaginative work. But now, with this stillness, moments of good clay feels like progress. My thoughts seem to be scented somehow with the research. It feels wonderful, it all seems to have come from unfamiliar corners of my mind. Definitely the research, I think. The things I've been reading.
Islamic art and architecture, for instance. That's new. European and American anarchist history too, which has come to fascinate me. And the politics of the PKK in Northern Syria and their particular form of Kurdish Democratic Federalism. I've also been returning to and discovering writers like Abdullah Öcalan, Robert Irwin, Ezra Pound, Günter Grass, Anakana Schofield, Tayeb Salih, Machado De Assis and many others.
I remember Maggie Nelson speaking about this. Each book is a sort of performance of a writer burning through their obsessions. Agreed, I think. I like her idea of burning through. Particularly since my first book In Our Mad and Furious City is being sent out by my publisher now, and is in the hands of new readers. I seem to have made room. Given myself yet more space to set something else alight and begin again.
I am being swept up feels like, by some new thing which will inevitably dictate the next few years of daily routine.
Hisham Matar speaks about this too, doesn't he? I vaguely remember something he said, something about being able to denote periods of his own life by what he was working on at the time. Each of his works, he said, dictated where he was, how he spent his days, how his life was shaped by the subject. Each three year period assumed the texture of the work.
In Our Mad and Furious City felt like a scream, like running. This new book, I don't know. But I'm curious. Anyway, the other cat is eating the houseplants and is need of my attention.