Palestinian writer and her fiction

November 5, 2023

For good art a delicate balance between didacticism and imagination is essential

Palestinian writer and her fiction


rt ceases to be art once didacticism overwhelms imagination. But, then, if imagination fails to educate, what good is it? For good art, be it a piece of fiction or music, a delicate balance is essential. Good writers of fiction know how to do it. In order to master the delicate balance, fiction writers learn the art or technique of inserting various levels of separation from the author to the narrator(s) to the protagonist(s). How much separation can a fiction writer create between her and her fiction? It depends on several factors, such as the political and economic environments of the author and the literary traditions surrounding her.

Thanks to the MFA indoctrination of ‘write what you know,’ imagination, by and large, has taken a toll in the United States in favour of memoir, creative nonfiction and/ or auto-fiction. However, not all auto-fiction is self-centred. It can often be quite political. Herta Müller’s auto-fiction, for example, is of a political nature when she critiques the treatment of the German minority under Romanian rule or the shipping of Germans to Russia to work as labourers. Similarly, Annie Ernaux of France handles auto-fiction by examining the politics of I, sexual desire and the female body in a male world. Whereas the auto-fiction scene can often dissolve into a limited worldview, it essentially remains a combination of fact and fiction, the key arena for imagination. Put another way, letting a writer’s imagination deal with real events so their complexities can come to the surface. Manto’s partition stories are a case in point. Once a writer shakes off the shackles of ‘write what you know’, imagination allows her to explore a wider landscape of truth.

Let’s look at another example: Talia Kolluri’s short story, The Good Donkey, in her acclaimed collection What We Fed to the Manticore (Tin House, 2022), where she used a piece of news to which the author was not directly or indirectly connected — an incident of a zoo in Gaza being destroyed by Israeli bombs or airstrikes. Instead of turning it into auto-fiction, she employs empathy, in this case, towards both the owner of the donkey and the donkey. The act of painting stripes on the skin of the animal to make it look like a zebra is double-edged; it symbolises the beauty of survival and the cruelty of the oppressor.

How much distance does one detect in Kolluri’s story? She is not a Palestinian, nor has she been a visitor to the largest prison on earth. In writing the story, she sends a message to her fellow Palestinian writers in the occupied lands and the diaspora that she has bridged the distance. She seems to be announcing: as a writer, I feel your pain. You are not alone. I had done something similar with my story The Barbarians and the Mule, included in my collection The Idol Lover and Other Stories (2008) as a protest against the widespread silence about the Palestine issue among American writers. I let it be known to fellow American writers which side of the divide I stood.

When Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood shamefully accepted an award in Israel despite desperate pleas from the Palestinian community and human rights activists, they, too, let the literary community know which side of the divide they stood on. When it comes to literature, everything is political. The type of political atmosphere a Palestinian writer negotiates on a daily basis regardless of where she lives, the distance between her politics, personal views or ideology and her fiction is negligible. The challenge for her is to decide how to paint that separation.

It’s time to bury the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. Instead, it should be ‘write what you must.

Take the following examples.

Adania Shibli’s slim novel Minor Detail (New Directions, 2020) was published to wide acclaim and bagged several key nominations. It was about to receive a major award at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but the event was cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing catastrophe in Palestine. Shibli had picked an actual life event in 1949, one year after the Nakba when Israeli soldiers murdered some Bedouins. Among the victims there was a young woman. She was raped, killed, then buried in the sand. A young woman born 25 years after the incident fails to suppress the urge to learn more about it after she reads about it in a paper. The reader learns, following the protagonist’s movements, about the difficulties Palestinians face having to negotiate various checkpoints and other hurdles.

Similarly, in Hussein Barghouthi’s Blue Light, an autobiographical novel, the protagonist carries Palestine with him wherever he goes, whoever he meets, be it followers of Buddhism or disciples of Rajnesh, from his stay in Seattle to his time in Beirut or Ramallah. Isabella Hammad’s two novels shed further light. In her debut novel, The Parisian, the novel’s protagonist, Midhat Kamal, goes to study medicine in Paris in 1914. By the time he returns, his life and that of all Palestinians has gone through a tectonic shift, with national fervour in high pitch due to British colonialism. In her second novel, Enter Ghost, an actress returns from England to Palestine under Israeli occupation and reluctantly joins the cast of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to be performed in Arabic. As the opening of the play approaches, Hammad fleshes out how many invasive and violent obstacles stand before a troupe of Palestinian actors can begin.

In Ghassan Kanafani’s haunting All That’s Left to You, a novella, a brother and sister have been separated from their family, now stuck in Gaza. The love and bond to their land and family felt by the Palestinians and the tragedy of dispossession metamorphose into the brother’s lingering rage because of the sexual violation his sister has suffered. And, of course, the classic of modern Arabic literature by Emile Habibi, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, which tells the story of a tragi-comic character fleeing his village during ethnic cleansing to end up being an informer for Israel. Saeed’s son joins the resistance and is killed along with his mother, while Saeed keeps getting put in jail and being tortured despite having cooperated with the occupiers of his land and the murderers of his family.

In a valiant show of courage, Angela Davis has cited poet June Jordan recently as saying that Palestine is the moral litmus test of the world. It is easy to understand that for a Palestinian writer to erase herself from the narrative or Palestine from within is not negotiable. Just as many white South African writers cut the distance to a minimum from the self to the problem of apartheid, which was ironically put in place in 1948. There are Israeli writers as well, who, in their own complex way, have tried to tell the world how morally repulsive the oppression of the Palestinians is. Assaf Gavron, in his brilliant Hilltop, shows through two Israeli brothers, one a rightwing fanatic guarding a settlement in the West Bank, the other with a more liberal attitude.

Since many American and Western writers are complicit in the prolonged suffering of the Palestinians, it is time for those who disagree with them to say: We are all Palestinian writers today. One does not have to be in Palestine physically. The material is there. Historians and intellectuals have done their work. All one needs is moral clarity, courage, empathy with the oppressed and imagination. It’s time to bury the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. Instead, it should be ‘write what you must.’

The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His last book was A Footbridge to Hell Called Love. His novella Unsolaced Faces We Meet In Our Dreams is due in December 2023

Palestinian writer and her fiction