Interview with longlisted author Said Khatibi
When did you begin writing Firewood of Sarajevo and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I had the idea seven years ago, as I was wandering around Sarajevo, talking to people and browsing through part of the city’s archive. In the past, I had written various things about Sarajevo, past and present, comparing it with Algeria, since I’m interested in questions of identity. However, I didn’t begin writing the novel until I had a full picture of it in my mind, had learned the Serbo-Croatian language, finished my research and gathered together the documents and sources I needed. For two whole years (2016-2018) I worked at the manuscript, since the novel is based on many details, is set in different countries and describes intersecting human destinies. I had a daily writing routine which was at once tough and pleasurable. I don’t much like the word “inspiration”. There is research and investigation, and it is essential to put in place a fixed programme of work, revision and editing. As I wrote, I was preoccupied by the fates of people in Algeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the relationship between east and west, the fragility of modern day human beings, and how they can escape from the cruelty of the time in which they are living.
How long did the novel take to write and where were you when you finished it?
The research, gathering the sources and the archive, and the recording of testimonies took a long time, especially given that the time period covered by the novel extends from the second world war until the 1990s. To this can be added the time I took to learn Serbo-Croatian. Working on the manuscript took two years. I was in the cities where the events of the novel take place: Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Algiers. I would wake up, walk, work and sleep with the characters and their intersecting lives. I would move from one of those three cities to another without feeling there was any difference between them. When you go deep into their socio-cultural history, you realise how similar they are, as though pain has been equally distributed among them.
How have readers and critics received it?
I have seen some encouraging reviews in Algerian and Arab newspapers, and two doctoral theses have been written about the novel in two Algerian universities, whilst another is in progress. I’ve received many letters from readers, some of whom feel that I have written about their experience in the 1990s. There have been discussions about in book clubs. At first, I feared it would not be much read because of its size, but the opposite has happened.
One notable time, I had finished speaking about it at a literary gathering, when a lady came up to me and told me that she was originally Bosnian and had lived in Algeria since the mid-eighties. I still remember her enthusiasm as she spoke about reading the novel. Two chapters have been translated into Slovenian and I have had some enjoyable conversations about it with Bosnians who have left their country.
What is your next literary project?
I’ve nearly finished translating a book of literary criticism by Jamel Eddine Bencheikh from French to Arabic. This poet, academic and translator has not received the attention nor been as widely read as he deserves, despite his important efforts and studies into Arab heritage, crowned by his seminal translation of The Thousand and One Nights (with the help of André Miquel). On the side, I am gathering the necessary material to begin a novel set in the Algerian desert.