Elias Khoury has been something of a secret figure in the literature scene. At least for an English-language audience.
Khoury had been active for decades in his native Lebanon as a writer and a translator, and working with literary journals. It took the 2006 publication of the English translation of his monumental work Gate of the Sun, an account of the displacement of the Palestinian people in a work of both hope and despair, humor and darkness, for him to be noticed.
Read the last Bookslut on Ellen Ullman.
Now that we do, however, we are lucky to receive a constant stream of his backlist from the inexhaustible independent publisher Archipelago. The latest is As Though She Were Sleeping, a dreamy account of a woman who slips in and out of consciousness, whose inner reality hides from but cannot help but absorb the chaotic world outside of her.
Set just before the 1948 offensive on Jaffa and the mass flight of its inhabitants from the city, it is an immersive reading experience. The outside world rushes onward, inevitably, and yet Meelya’s inner dream world circles around itself, creating a sensual whirlpool. The conflict between these two worlds makes for an enchanting and singular read.
In a recent interview with Khoury, we covered as much ground as we could, from the different genders of his different books, to the recent controversy over a poem by Günter Grass.
I'm interested in the differences between this novel and Yalo. The framing and tone seem very similar, in their fluidity. In Yalo, the primary storyteller is an accused rapist undergoing interrogation, a rather masculine setting. Sleeping, however, is something of a feminine counterpart, a woman—a lover, a mother—drifting in and out of consciousness. How did your method of writing change with the change of gender?
I think the difference is...I just want to remind you at the end of Yalo he wanted to tell the story of his mother. The ending of Yalo was a kind of putting forward the project for a new approach.
So in Sleeping it becomes about the relationship between dreams and reality, how Meelya continued her dreams through and into her life. It’s actually a circular style that moves between the world of night and dreams and the waking world outside, the world that was heading for catastrophe, the world of Jaffa and Palestine. So yes, the approach totally changed. I was speaking of the interior language, the feminine language and the way that changes the meaning of language and its sensibility. It changes the words and relationship between words.
Your character Mansour says at one point, "History is a lie." Your books are so deeply rooted into specific historical moments—Sleeping rather rushes toward Jaffa, as if it were, in the book at least, inevitable—so I'm wondering which is more strong for you, personally: stories told and written about the past, from folklore to novels, or the so-called historical record?
History is written by victors, as you know. There is a major struggle between history, the dominant way of writing history, that is if the victors have total control of historical writing, and the story of the victims.
The only place for the victims is the story. The story is always much more powerful than the history. And the struggle of these two elements...I intend to go to the unspoken and formulate a story that can stand against another version, a different version. This story, the stories we tell, has many versions. That’s the difference between story and history. There are many versions that can coexist together, and they build our relationship to our life. They are our mirror and our imagination.
I wanted to ask you about the way you incorporate historical elements into your fiction. There are so many writers who set their books, say, among the ruins of World War II, and it's like they are placing paper dolls around bombed-out Berlin. It feels more like just a setting than an essential part of the story. With your fiction, however, the historical backdrop is very much integral to the work. Would you say your political past and your historical knowledge are an integral part of your palette? And does that historical structure come naturally to the novel, or is it something you engineer from the beginning, when the story is first starting to form?
It has everything to do with my life, of course. We write from our whole selves. This is a choice, it is a literature of these different elements...The basic elements come from the historical record, but they are pushed toward becoming a myth, which goes beyond the time and the place. Building this is like creating stones out of the different elements. The outcome must be a kind of creating a world of mirrors, mirroring each other. And giving a different world possible.
As a big Julio Cortázar fan, I wanted to ask you a little about your friendship with him in Paris. How did the two of you come to meet? Was his literature an influence on you as well, or was your connection strictly personal?
Actually, I went to Paris to interview Cortázar. I was writing for a journal and I had read a book of Cortázar’s. Actually, I edited its translation. I was working at a publishing house at the time. I loved Cortázar very deeply. Both his books and the man.
He was very generous to me when I came. I was the young writer, and he was the great writer. And he was very generous. He let me come to his apartment, and in his apartment there were these records, almost all jazz music. We talked about music, and I understood for the first time how much a part music was a part of his prose, and how closely literature is related to the musicality of the words and the musicality of the situation. Cortázar continues to be a great influence.
Before we go, I was wondering if you wanted to comment on the recent Günter Grass controversy. As you know, he was banned from entering Israel for the political nature of his recent writing.
Listen. Günter Grass was stating the obvious. Israel is the only atomic power in the Middle East, and no one is allowed to talk about it. What Grass said was just telling the truth. I thought the attack on Grass was not moral, because they were using his youth to smear him.
Israel behaves in the tradition of the worst aspects of the history of colonialism. It must be criticized like any other country. This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. I think putting Israel in this special place where we all have to shut up is dangerous. This government, the government that rules Israel now, cannot give lessons on morality to a writer like Günter Grass.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.