Interview with shortlisted author Dima Wannous
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was at home with my son. He woke up early that day even though it was a school holiday, to follow the news, waiting for the result before I did. The news certainly made me happy, coming as it did in the midst of the disappointments, savagery and feeling of uselessness which we Syrians are experiencing.
“How does a human being become a beast? Does he sleep one night and wake up the next morning like that?” (page 68). Does the novel look for an answer to this question?
The novel poses the question, and maybe tries to search for the beast inside us. How is it possible for someone who has lived for decades under a savage regime to escape the consequences? What has happened in Syria has brought out the sleeping beasts, so that it has become clear that those long years of a deceptive, fragile stability were actually a daily training in savagery.
Naseem and Sulaima’s feelings of belonging come from small things, like houses or the right hand side of the bed. Have small and intimate things become a replacement for one’s homeland?
Exactly. When the “Leader” or the “Local Boss” in a country like Syria becomes the homeland and loyalty due to him alone, and this is patriotism, you lose your sense of belonging to things larger than the small things you own. The body becomes the sole nexus of belonging, and the narrow space containing it becomes a homeland, in some way or other. In a country where the rights of citizens have been appropriated, and historical and cultural landmarks have been transformed into institutions bearing the name of “the Leader”, and citizens are imprisoned if they speak freely, the space of belonging is narrowed. Even the street your house is on becomes strange. You own nothing in your “homeland” except for maybe a sofa and some books.
When you wrote the novel, were you interested in discovering the different sources of fear? Do attempts to deal with fear always end in failure or do you think that it is possible to overcome it?
The topic of fear has preoccupied me for years. Especially in the case of Syria, where fear was in our conscious awareness and logic, and dominated our lives. This dreadful sensation which all humanity has experienced was no transitory thing in Syria, but a permanent, painful reality. And fear, like joy or sadness, is passed on from one person to another, is inherited, exists in the fear of what truly is terrifying, and also in the fear of what is not. There is also the fear of fear itself, of experiencing that dreadful feeling a second time, and then a third and fourth time. Fear can certainly be dealt with, once you know what is causing it. I think that in Syria it is linked with what is called “the everlasting Syria”. The Leader is everlasting, and so is fear, because everlasting fear keeps him there, ruling forever.
“Here we are, we have become one story, diseased versions of each other.” (page 76). Does the novel present us with anything which might break up this made-into-one story?
The Syrian revolution is what has broken up this made-into-one story. Even if the results of it so far have been horrifying, yet it has freed Syrians from being that diseased copy of each other. That beast I mentioned would also not have emerged, were it not for the revolution. There is no getting away from experiencing this period of savagery. It had to happen so that one day, however distant it may be, we can live a normal life governed by law and citizenship.
Suleima wants to pluck out her memory because it is painful, and Naseem claims he lost his memory at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. What did you want to say about memory and consciousness?
Memory truly is painful. Its shadow lies across the present. It builds up, overflows and paralyses you, preventing you from living a normal, peaceful day. The memory of people in civilized, democratic nations is noted down, recorded, filmed, collected in research centres. Whereas in our countries, it is forbidden for memory to go further than the walls of one’s house. Even the walls of our houses have “ears” in our cities. This problematic memory became a prisoner of the spirit. We don’t talk about it, for fear that it will happen to us again, for fear that harm will befall those we love, and for fear of fear too! The more it builds up, incapable of being expressed, the more we feel its weight. We carry it on our shoulders and walk with it. The bodies of Syrians are drenched in that memory. Even the language of their bodies was for decades heavy and awkward. At the end of a play in Damascus, when everyone was applauding the actors and the room was full, their arms didn’t move from their sides, only their hands applauded.
Why is this a novel within a novel with two heroines whose stories are interlinked?
Because they are a copy of each other, like all Syrians. In the face of the common fear they experience, their stories, destinies and feelings are similar. Fear is the one common factor among all Syrians, no matter what their environment, sect or background. The false slogan of “common life” forced upon them by the regime has been nothing more than “common fear”.
In the novel, Naseem says: “Writing about a revolution happening before our eyes and before our senses is a very difficult thing. But avoiding what is happening and writing about a subject unrelated to what we are experiencing is merely a pathetic attempt to escape reality.” (page 116). Is this the dilemma of the Syrian or Arab writer today?
In my opinion, this has been the writer’s dilemma for many years. Arab regimes have kept their people busy with great issues, only to deprive them of “small” things, which are maybe more important! Arab writers too were busy with big issues, incapable of writing a novel about the small things of daily life, as though writing itself was a patriotic issue. There was an inability to look at politics, disappointments and savagery with a neutral eye, and to move from issues to literature. After the revolutions, new fictional voices were heard, which in my view were liberated from the dominance of politics and ideology. This freedom gave them a wider space for new creative experiments with language and expression.