Longlisted author interview with Al-Habib Sayah
When did you start writing Me and Haim and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I think it was after 18 months that I felt comfortable with a final draft, in terms of structure, to move on to working on the details. The proofreading and the publisher’s edits took about six months after that.
I don’t know if I can be convinced of the link between writing fiction to inspiration, but I am inclined instead to linking fiction to the preoccupation that fills the mind of every writer and keeps him/her up at night. Although I do not deny the factor of inspiration, or talent in fiction writing. However, I do not know exactly from where or how the idea of Me and Haim came to my mind in its initial form which is different from the finished manuscript it is now.
Now, having some distance from the text, I can attribute some of this to the power of place, the city of Saida, which has remained in my memory from when I was a child during and after the Liberation War. Some of the city’s monuments which have been destroyed or perished have been like a wound for me. The same power is true for some of its inhabitants, from the old Africans, Europeans and Jews who were very close to the Algerian people, speaking Arabic and with barely any difference in clothing, food and traditions save for religion. Place and people, in any novel, are linked to history. In writing Me and Haim, I could have been unconsciously reconstructing and resurrecting what has perished.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
Writing fiction is an ongoing exercise. Whenever I have time and energy I can shorten the time it takes to write a novel, despite its size. This is because it depends on the results of previous exercises. Accordingly, each text I complete is an exercise for the following one. Perhaps the most important factor that could be decisive for my productivity is command of the language: semantically and structurally. Thus, Haim and Me could have taken around two years of ongoing work at a rate of ten hours a day. My exile of choice was in the city of Adrar, in southwestern Algeria, which has given me the space, light and solitude to start Haim and Me – and every other writing project – before ending it in Saida city where I live with my family.
How have readers and critics received it?
I think due to the spread of communication channels, it is now possible to have a direct relationship – even if virtually – between a writer and his/her readers. This is very important. Many readers that I only know virtually told me that they bought my novel and that they are reading it. And they often discuss it with me. It renews my confidence in continuing to write. There is another type of reader: researchers and university students who are writing their dissertations. They are plenty of those, based on the ones who contacted me, and who also came to the booksigning at the Algeria International Book Fair. As for the critics, this will require some time to digest the novel, as what has been written about it so far by writers and published in some online websites or prominent newspapers has been very encouraging.
What is your next literary project?
Honestly, I am in the company of Haim and Me. This does not mean I am not preoccupied with a new project that might awaken in me at any moment. Then I would have to answer the question coming from the depth of my soul: “And now, after Haim and Me how will you write?” because the question “What will I write?” is not important for me.