Interview with shortlisted author Alia Mamdouh
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was at home working on my new book, Imperfection. A dear friend called to congratulate me on The Tank getting shortlisted. My first reaction was a state of calm joy. I learned things a very long time ago from living alone and not disrupting my solitude. So if pain or joy ever come, I do not allow them to overflow. I smiled, then laughed in a low voice, and felt that all my facial features were happy. Reaching the shortlist is associated with a certain quality, which goes for all the novels on the list. And this brings me joy.
For which type of reader do you write?
Generally, I do not know the types or genders I write for. Once the structure and characters of the novel have come together and I start writing, I do not think of who will read it; a high school student, a university professor or an intellectual. I like the intelligent reader who is not lazy or tyrannical, who does not come with prejudices about one name or another. I never write to please, cheat or conspire with a particular reader. If he/she cannot keep reading, they can set the book aside.
Tell us about the research you did for The Tank.
I researched and read documents and books, old and new. I talked to many people, particularly in England and Jordan. I also met individuals who were students at the Baghdad College and contemporaries of the Jesuit fathers, and I documented meetings with Iraqi professors who were teaching after the fathers left Iraq. Documents were piling up, titles were multiplying and excitement was at its peak, particularly because everyone’s memory was very vivid, and this made me feel that I could start with full force. It was part of my country’s history that I could see before me, and it seemed still young and fortified from its enemies across time, even though I myself am in an old age decline. I had to capture the hours, days and years that sped by at times and inched along at others. I experienced living under those conditions again. I brought the Ayoub family to life with their own dialect and the stutter of some of its members, and to this moment Afaf Ayoub continues to charm me as she plays her musical notes with artistic flair between drawing, singing and silence. Yes, The Tank took a long time to write because I suffered a difficult medical crisis. I wrote some of the chapters while I was very tired, and I imagined that the flurry of diseases and diseased in the novel infected me, the novelist.
Were you surprised by any readings of the novel? How would you like the novel to be read?
In the first months after the novel came out, it was overlooked. Some friends jokingly attributed the reason to its “iron title”. We giggled and paid the matter no attention. Suddenly, the tables turned, and The Tank was longlisted for the IPAF. My calm life took a pleasantly tumultuous turn, something I am not accustomed to. The critical and journalistic reviews that I read were a true surprise for me. They made me happy, as some names, and particular Palestinian female writers, really amazed me. In a few days, an important in-depth study of ten pages by an Iraqi researcher and critic will come out. He dissected the novel in a truly captivating manner. Everything that he wrote shed light on a different aspect of The Tank, “as the moon’s faces are between the crescent and the full moon, before eventually going into hiding.”
To which family of novels does The Tank belong?
That’s a good question; I never thought of it before. If I had to answer, I would rather classify The Tank among rebellious families that come up with a problem, or several problems, and in turn the ability to formulate the burning questions that are better asked, even if stammeringly, than avoided.
Most of your novels are about Iraq, what is the biggest challenge you face when writing about your homeland, while living outside of it?
I know of one challenge whether I am in my country or not; that is the act of writing itself and the importance of doing it well. I mean that I only write what I love to write. Every day I look at my country’s situation and depict its virtues and delights, atrocities and grievances in each novel. I spend the time needed to organize the typography of the dead and lost, and uncover the thieves and murderers. My country is precious and rich, and all the novels of all Iraqis are not enough to do it justice. Every novelist civilizes the country through the act of writing, exposing its layers, shedding light on its bloody phases in detail and documenting what they see necessary. I did not leave it, and so it did not leave me.
Which authors influenced you as a novelist?
Every book I ever read has lived with me until today, starting with my ongoing passion for philosophy, through the sciences and not ending with the big narratives. Every book is instinctual and existential, I belong to it and it penetrates me in my personal and literary life. Perhaps this appears in the multitude of genres and experiments that I worked on in my writings. Those books are my secret guidelines and my testy times, the flavor of madness that my characters and I are destined to reach.
What are you reading now? Has your reading list been influenced by the Coronavirus stay at home recommendations?
I went back and retrieved all of Albert Camus’ books again and again. I am passionate about his language which is not neutral. It doesn’t inform me but rather alludes to the truth. I believe that humankind was secretly awaiting this pandemic to be retaught and retrained. Everything around us will change; love, friendship, regimes, states, everything that we hold sacred. If we do not lose something, we will not gain anything. All natural disasters recorded by history have led to radical changes in humanity and the planet that we cannot comprehend.
I call this virus “the vicious bloody teacher” but we need it and this is one of the advantages of some pandemics for humankind, although we do not know where it will take us!