International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novelist Hussein El Wad has not yet responded to ArabLit’s request for an interview. However, Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi conducted one with the charmingly modest El Wad (here), and it is translated to English by Tunisian Literature (in English)’s Ali Znaidi.
Tunisian and Arab universities knew Hussein El Wad as a researcher and academic focusing on Arabic prose and poetry, and as an author of many books in those fields, until his novel The City’s Scents came out in 2010 and won the Tunisian literary Prize of the Golden Comar. Then, his novel His Excellency the Minister (2011) was shortlisted in The Arabic Booker.
From the interview:
Kamel Riahi: After the The Golden Comar for the Tunisian novel in Arabic came reaching the shortlist of The Arabic Booker with His Excellency the Minister but you seemed, as usual, not too much interested, contrary to the rest of Arab novelists, and you were not primarily interested in publishing both novels. Is this true? And is indifference the path to awards?
HEW: I was outside Tunisia when I learned that The City’s Scents had won The Golden Comar. I had no idea that it had been nominated. As for The Booker [International Prize for Arabic Fiction], the editor told me that he would nominate His Excellency the Minister. Of course, this does not mean indifference or unconcern, but academic writing is different from creative writing.
For instance, in the first place, I was concerned about adding on to knowledge in any book I publish. Addition is the criterion. And any research in which I did not reach this, I did not publish it. As for creative writing, I compare what I’ve done with what I expected and I oftentimes feel that the text does not reach the expected level.
As far as the publication of the two novels was concerned, the first one was forcibly grabbed from me. I was enjoying reading it on my computer and looking at it for longer time. There is no secret in telling you that I was somehow sorry when it was published because that novel really mutinied against me and whenever I began altering some paragraphs or expressions before publishing it I was unable to do so.
As for the second novel, I published it in gratitude to the revolution, because the latter personally did me a favor. And I tell you that I did not look at the first nor the second novel after publishing them.
Riahi further asked:
KR: Why did you postpone publishing your creation? Were you afraid about the image of the academic; the man of science and discipline being far from the image of the unbridled creator? Or were you afraid about the regime’s assault, as your novel His Excellency the Minister was a satire about the regime?
HEW: It was true that we (the editor and the director of the series) thought a lot about the reactions of the authorities towards the first novel. That’s why it was showed to some trusted readers to take their opinions in this regard, but it leaked until it became circulated through photocopying.
Nevertheless, creative writing itself also necessitates a great of precision and intellectual engineering, especially as regards to the economics of the artistic text. Don’t you see that nine tenths of our creative writings have a great deal of nonsense and gratuitous prattle?
On the other hand, there is no doubt that you know that many great academics wrote creative writings. Some of them admitted the difficulty of artistic writing. The novel is a free genre, and freedom does not mean to be on the loose. On the contrary, it is auto-discipline at its utmost.
Hussein El Wad also later said:
Narration dominated me. Perhaps this was due to being vexed by the mediocrity of the bulk I have read or perhaps due to the ferocity of anger for the culture to which I belong. I sometimes find myself writing due to a lavish love for a reality that is lavish with harm as it is replete with mediocrity, vulgarity, impudence, and ugliness.
And in response to a question about El Wad’s first novel, The City’s Scents:
HEW: The rest of the Scents does exist. I do not know what made me postpone its publication. There is something that I do not know preventing me. Denouncing, divulging, and condemning all what harms, damages, and jeopardizes existence at all levels used to fall under the rubric of resistance to stir dormant emotions.
Now things have changed. For us, particularly, denouncing becomes a mobilization in order not those abhorred eras come again. Difference is clear between the two situations. What remains is reaching artistic clarity. As for His Excellency, it has no relation with The City’s Scents. I wrote it laughing out from much stupidity.
Riahi also asked:
Your style in the second novel is totally different from the first. In His Excellency language is pragmatic and not loaded with rhetoric, whereas in The Scents it sounds, and so does the style, strong, ancient, eloquent, and poetic. Which style is closer to you? And does the literary text impose its style and language or does the novelist want to carve a style for himself/herself?
El Wad said, in part:
HEW: Language also uses the writer. It is a strange being that transcends us.
Riahi also asked El Wad for his predictions:
KR: …How do you read the reality and the future of Tunisia today as a creator? And what are your fears about and your perceptions of what is happening and what will happen?
HEW: Our reality is tearful in reality and metaphorically. I permit myself and all those who are preoccupied with it and who are suffering from it to criticize it with the cruelty it deserves. But it hurts me a lot that others criticize it as a means to deride and belittle us and also perhaps as a glee at our misfortune so we cannot find anything to respond back. I was happy that some Arab peoples had the courage to take hold of their destiny. But the joy was not consummated.
Arab peoples today are at a crossroads. Their chronic crisis becomes a matter of being. I hope that those peoples will succeed in building a world in which people are able to live a decent life that is rich with diversity in a durable world.
Riahi also delved more into El Wad’s past and future:
KR: You were one the founders of the avant-garde literary movement in Tunisia in the seventies. And now you appear as one of the most important creators in the Tunisian scene and between these two periods you were preoccupied with research. Today after your retirement will you devote your time to creation? And when will you release the new novel? Or will this abrupt success lead you to take your time more?
HEW: The story of the avant-garde movement in Tunisia is long and rich. In brief, it began in the seventies obstreperous, quarrelsome, mutinous, and pregnant with loads of hopes. But it was not long when it became a…mere luxurious façade of a shop full of all kinds of valueless haberdasheries[.]
We had a rendezvous with history (here the comparison must be taken with a pinch of salt), but we missed it. So it turned its face from us and went away. My fear is that we miss once again this second rendezvous – the one we are witnessing today. Then, we will not find even time to regret it or shed tears.
As a reader, I like writers to respect me and not make light of me or waste my time because time is very precious. As a writer, I try to respect the readers because the book – and this saying is by Attawhidi or Jahiz – is what “when you look at it, it elongates your pleasure.” …
As for retirement, I wish that everybody will not find him or herself repeating with Al-Ma’arri his saying, “my action was lost in intentions like mountains in the dark.”