Longlist Interview with Abdelmajid Sebbata
When did you start writing File 42 and where did the inspiration for it come from?
The idea of writing File 42 was born in October 2017, when I happened to read a few lines in an article online about the tragedy of the poisoned oil, which occurred in Morocco a few years after its independence. Quite honestly, I knew nothing at all about it and was shocked by the horrifying things I read. I asked my parents who lived through that time and they confirmed every fact I had read and added some more details. I made a firm decision to write a novel which would bring this forgotten subject back to people’s consciousness and tell my generation about what happened. It would honour – even if only symbolically – the victims who had been wronged.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
Of course, just reading a few lines online was not enough for me to begin work on the novel. Since my academic training has formed me (despite my love of literature which came first), I have accustomed myself to working according to a strict regime. First, there is the stage of gathering together and documenting everything to do with the subject of the novel and having an initial idea of the plot, before writing a single letter of a draft. This part was extremely difficult, since so many years have passed since the tragedy and there is a subconscious desire to forget it. Most of the victims have either died or are very old. However, I continued the research, relying on certain sources and testimonies, until March 2019. At that point, I felt that the main plot lines of the story were now complete in my mind and in my little book where I had jotted down notes. So I distanced myself from all social media and lived in semi-isolation in order to write the book. This lasted nine months in total (yes, the number is symbolic) until December of the same year. I wrote it both on the table in my small room in my house in Salé and in the reading room in the French Institute in Rabat, apart from a few days when I “escaped” to the city of Tangiers. Every writer (Arab and foreign) who visits or lives in Tangiers knows that it has an amazing power to stimulate the creative imagination, in a mysterious way which is difficult to explain.
How have readers and critics received it?
The novel was published in February 2020, when the Casablanca Book Fair was on. It was popular among readers. Some were intrigued by its subject which was new to them, while others had witnessed some of those tragic events and wanted to read an imaginative recreation of them. A number of critics saw it as an attempt to give readers a new kind of Moroccan and Arabic novel, free in its form from direct, linear narration, and touching upon a taboo subject. Naturally, the epidemic had a negative effect. It deprived the novel of the publicity it would have had, after book fairs, literary meetings and book signings were cancelled. All this due to the presence of a heavy, unwelcome guest among us – corona. But the most wonderful thing about literature is its incredible power to break through all the boundaries of geography and time which constrict us.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
My translation of The Queen’s Gambit by the American writer Walter Tevis will be published soon by Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi and I am also working on some other literary translations. In terms of writing, I prefer at the moment to concentrate on reading, the wall leant upon by any writer who wants to polish and develop his skills, avoiding the pitfall of repeating the same things, having nothing new to say. This applies to intellectual pursuits, not just literature. I want to discover more Moroccan, Arab and world experiences of creative writing, both classical and current.