Over the last few days at Sharjah Book Fair I have sat in on two panels dedicated to the Arab novel. The discussion has been broadranging to say the least – with politics, culture, identity and writing all taking centre stage.
The idea of ‘greater truths’ in fiction is a theme that is emerging from the Sharjah Book Fair. Writing stories is really a way of writing history and identity, and novels and poetry can document social change as well as – or perhaps even better than? – journalism.
Waciny Laredj of Algeria discussed his novel The Andalusian House and spoke about writing history:
If we are talking about novels and history, it’s complicated. When a novellist wants to write history he passes the message to the readers by setting an emotional story. But is the history genuine and valid? The historical novel questions the veracity of history.
His work directy addresses questions not just of history, but of culture. His goal in writing about history, he says, is to ‘identify our identity’.
Lebanese writer May Menassa has similar goals. She was a journalist who turned to writing novels because she had been ‘a witness of the war’, and she writes to ensure that cultural and political history is not forgotton:
Everytime I start writing it is the story of the war that comes to mind. I don’t forget the days of bombs that fell on houses, it sticks in the memory. We need to remember these events. In our minds, war creates relics like archaeology. I see myself as an archaeologist searching for relics of my country.
Is my book The Sewing Machine a literature of war or a literature of peace? I try to keep man under the microscope. I have to recall the events of history that destroyed us.
By acknowledging and exploring the war in Beirut, May hopes that mistakes will not be repeated. As she spoke I was reminded of what George Goodwin said about journalism being history’s first draft. Perhaps, then, the second draft (or third, or fourth?) is art, personal expression and the exploration of emotional as well as physical impact.
Mohammed Achaari spoke about the importance of novels in recording the history of cities and identity. Of his award winning novel, The Arch and the Butterfly, he said:
Places are something basic in novel writing in particular. I regard the place as a main character in the novel. I took the reader with me to visit the current Morocco, which was experiencing a boom but in which there were also sensitive political issues. Following the tiny events was very important as they depicted the day to day lives of Morocco. I tried to write an emotional journey, the story of the protagonist’s life. The emotional story weaves the story of a city.
History is deeply complex and ultimately unknowable (at least in terms of absolutele certainty), but telling human histories, both ancient and modern, is vital.
Art and literature explore these human and emotional truths. The stories we write – and read – matter.