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Syrian novelist Khalid Khalifa: The writer is a realist and understands truth and human traits
Born in Aleppo in 1964, award-winning Syrian novelist Khalid Khalifa emerged as one of the most prominent Arab novelists known outside of his home country. His popularity increased after his famous novel ‘In Praise of Hatred’ (Madih Al Karahiya) was ranked among the top 100 novels of all time by Muse List.
In Praise of Hatred was also a finalist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Booker) in 2008 and among the longlisted works for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award in 2013.
Khalifa’s books have been translated into many languages, including English, French, German, Italian and Norwegian.
In an interview with Nasher, Khalifa talks about his works, literary awards and his reasons for writing about people’s challenges, horrors and hardships.
Why are you writing? What do you personally benefit from writing?
There is no straightforward, simple answer to this question. Perhaps it is just a case that I am writing because I have not mastered another profession, or maybe because nothing makes me as happy as writing.
You are one of a few Arab novelists who have made politics and concerns of daily life a central point in their works. Why is that?
One cannot live in countries like ours without getting involved in politics to some extent. I do not intend to link my work directly to politics, but when a writer is overwhelmed by such an overwhelming flood of events, it is impossible to ignore it. How can you write about flowers, birds and lakes, while the blood of your people is being spilt on the streets and tens of thousands of young people are languishing in prisons? No one can survive this onslaught without some reaction.
In your opinion, which writers deserved to be called ‘novelists’?
It is every writer who is looking for, and trying to write a good narrative text. It is impossible to quantify and there is no baseline assessment – every writer is different. There are several elements we need to bring into the equation, although talented writing will always make itself known. So far though, we have no definition.
You won the Naguib Mahfouz Award for the year 2013, and you were nominated for the Arab Booker Award in 2008. To what extent are the awards important to writers and readers?
Prizes create temporary moments of joy and appreciation for the writer but in reality, these are mostly for marketing the writer – the awards are not necessarily given for the best book and we have seen this throughout the history of literature. For Arab novels, the awards experience is still relatively new and there will be efforts to ensure that they will be given to the most deserving works. I always try look at the prizes from a positive perspective because I know that in moments of weakness and self-doubt, a writer needs to feel appreciated.
While your works have proved to be profound, they have not been prolific in terms of numbers. Do you believe a novelist should not aim to write more work?
For me, publishing is the real problem. I like to work, rework, assess and reassess my script for long time, because it is the writing which gives me the most pleasure, not the publishing. If I wrote just two good novels throughout my life I would be happy.
Novels are often at the heart of Arab readers today. Are you satisfied with this, and why do you believe poetry is no longer ‘Divan Al Arab’?
It is not a matter of satisfaction; the main issue is trying to market the novel as the divan of Arabs, and that doesn’t work. The situation is much better now than it has been over the last 30 years, but today this slogan is an illusion – Arabs do not have any divan – whether that is through novels or through poetry.
Many foreign writers, especially novelists, earn high-incomes. Why do you think this is not the case with most Arab writers?
There a several crucial factors, including marketing, the integrity of the publishers and transparency in the declaration of the distribution figures – something which the great novelist Naguib Mahfouz suffered from so cruelly. Before being awarded the Nobel Prize, Mahfouz was not able to live on the sales from his books, even though his publishers gained enormous revenues. This system needs to have a complete overhaul that preserves the rights of writers.
You have recently released your new novel named ‘Death Is Hard Work’. Why should a writer constantly remind people of their pain and suffering? Should he not give them hope?
Being reminded of pain does not mean despair. The writer is not an illusionist, he is a realist and understands truth and human traits. He is closer to human and humanitarian faith than say, an astrologer, and inevitably, you cannot go deep into the human psyche without writing about pain. Life is a set of frustrations and pain, whereas temporary and transient personal success is an illusion. Death is always the brightest of truths.
Finally, what is your next project?
It is a new novel that is still too early to talk about, but once again it is about the city of Aleppo.