Interview with longlisted author Amira Ghenim
When did you start writing The Calamity of the Nobility and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I do not stop asking myself these two questions: when and from where? But does a writer ever know exactly when the trigger has been pulled in his mind? And does the subconscious mind, which essentially accompanies the creative process, allow the writer to realize what the inspiration and motivations for the text are? One could estimate when one began to write in months and years, but writing is a silent mental process that does not begin once we sit down at the keyboard, just as the life of a tree does not begin with the blossoming of its bud on the surface of the earth. We need to hold the seed fertilizing the idea and to know the moment it meets the soil of the imaginative world to answer the two questions of when and from where. And I do not claim to have this clarity in memory and consciousness. All I remember is that during some academic research, I came across an elaborate verse in the poetry of the Tunisian reformer and champion of women and liberties Tahar Haddad. Was that verse the inspiring, fertilizing seed? Or was it the drop of water that resurrected an idea that had lain dormant in my mind for years? Honestly, I do not know.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
Describing time as long or short is a relative matter. It might seem brief to me but lengthy to someone else, or vice versa. However, what I am certain of is that the novel occupied my thoughts most of the time throughout the period of writing it. Its characters accompanied me wherever I went in Sousse city on the Tunisian coast, where I started and finished the novel. They accompanied me on the way to my work at the university, I negotiated the plot with them while buying groceries, they stood with me by the kitchen stove as I made lunch and dinner for my children, and they lay down on my pillow before me, hence rendering sleep - with them crowding me - a difficult ask. Yes, I do not know if the novel took a long time to write, but I do know that it consumed me.
How have readers and critics received it?
I was truly delighted that the novel was so well received by readers and critics. A text has no value if people do not want to read it, even if it were a literary masterpiece. It was lucky for The Calamity of the Nobility that it made its way to the reader audience very smoothly. Upon coming out it earned a national award. Then many features and reviews about it were published in daily newspapers or online. The Tunisian media introduced it during many occasions on cultural TV and radio shows. Many book clubs celebrated it on social media to the extent that within a few months it was in its third edition only within Tunisia and that is despite the limitation of the Tunisian market given the population. I believe that reaching the Prize’s longlist will open up Arab readership and boost its future place in Arabic criticism.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I continue to delve into the unofficial history of personalities whose pictures have been falsified in the collective memory. I extract forgotten pearls from the heart of stubborn oysters. From underneath the hard shells, I search for wounds indicative of man’s frailty, and I examine through the lens of the fictional imagination the social and psychological manifestations whose destructive impact continues to control our morbid Tunisian reality. In the work I am preoccupied by now, I try a new, different narrative structure in terms of techniques and expression than the one I adopted in The Calamity of the Nobility. The most I could wish for is that the obsession of renewing fictional discourse, whether in language, narrative techniques or content, will become the main driving force for my future projects.