Interview with shortlist author Habib Selmi
In Longing for the Woman Next Door, we read that “there is nothing stranger, more mysterious and more changeable in the world of human relationships than that between male and female” (page 65). Is this the primary theme you are concerned with in Longing for the Woman Next Door?
Human relationships in general and between male and female in particular, are hugely important in my view, since through them we can understand much of what happens in our societies. Their growth, usually characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty, and marked by changes and fluctuations, forms an important part of the subject which Longing for the Woman Next Door tries to approach. It isn’t, as in the question, the main subject.
It’s true that on a surface level, the novel deals with the world of these relationships, but it goes beyond that to highlight fundamental themes, such as the concept of love and its inner logic, and the problems of identity in an ever-changing world. In a wider sense, it deals with the symbolic meaning of exile, foreignness and the relationship of Arabs with themselves and with the Other.
The story is told from the point of view of the first-person narrator, the main protagonist, who addresses the reader and confesses his inner thoughts and feelings to him. Why did you choose this type of narrator?
I chose a first-person narrator in order to get as close as possible to the inner world of the main character, Kamal Ashour, Professor of Mathematics. He experiences something which, before meeting the other main character, Zahra, he never would have imagined possible, especially as he is sixty years old. Zahra causes a flood of thoughts, ideas and imaginings about himself and the world he lives in to burst out inside him. She produces in him impressions and feelings, making him critically re-examine himself and ask questions which would never have occurred to him. She shakes up his existence. I had to capture all this, including the most important details, and the first-person narrator was very helpful to me in this. If I had used the “cold” or “neutral” third person narrator, I would not have been able to grasp the basic characteristics of the two characters upon whom the novel is based.
The hero of the novel, like the author, is a Tunisian man living in Paris who teaches in an institute of higher education, is married to a Frenchwoman, and is around the same age. Does he resemble you in other ways, such as in his personality for example?
In all fictional characters we find something of the author. Unconsciously, some of his characteristics and behaviour leaks through to the work, even against his will. Didn’t the renowned novelist, Gustave Flaubert, famously say, “I am Madame Bovary”. By this, he meant that something deep in his character was there in the character of Madame Bovary, despite the fact that she was a woman.
But the novel is not an autobiography. It is rather, in essence, an artistic work of the imagination. There are huge differences between me and the hero. And the similarities which you have mentioned are very superficial and don’t play any fundamental role in the dramatic development of the novel, nor in the trajectory it takes.
Is longing for the woman next door, Zahra, a type of longing or nostalgia for one’s homeland?
I don’t think so. I am not one of those people who are forever nostalgic. I don’t want to look backwards. But this doesn’t mean that I deny my past, try to run away from it, or break my ties with it. Anyway, even if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to do so, because the past is a fundamental part of our character. It blends with the present. I differentiate between memory and nostalgia. Remembering things is useful, in fact it is essential, because memory makes changes, sorts things out and asks questions of the past. In this sense, it helps us to see things clearly. Nostalgia is merely bringing things back to mind and very often it colours past experiences with a rosy hue.
What is the significance of The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih in the context of Longing for the Woman Next Door?
I chose to include The Wedding of Zein for a number of reasons. The first was that I love this novel and believe that it is Tayeb Salih’s most important work and one of the deepest Arabic novels, despite its shortness. Secondly, because it deals with the theme of love. Thirdly, because its shortness suits the mentality of Zahra. We must not forget that Zahra is an illiterate woman with absolutely no knowledge of literature. She is not used to seeing libraries. The books she sees in Mr. Ashour’s library are, for her, mostly very thick. Just looking at them makes her feel rather frightened. She doesn’t even have the courage to touch them. The only book which she feels comfortable with is The Wedding of Zein, because of its length. But when she learns that it is a novel, and a love story, she becomes even more attracted to it and expresses her desire to read it.
“How fragile, ambiguous and changeable is the relationship between male and female! It is affected by simple, even trivial, things” (page 25). Is this why there are no great events in the novel?
There are “great” events in Longing for the Woman Next Door. The most important of these is Kamal Ashour falling in love at the age of sixty and the surprising development of the relationship between him and Zahra, which leads to many unexpected thoughts and feelings between a university professor and a woman from a humble social background.
In any case, I think that the events in any artistic work are “great” if we know how to work on them. There are important novels built upon events which seem “small”. I’ll suffice with just two examples: a short novel, Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo and an extremely long one, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. In these two works, we don’t find what one could call a “great” event, yet despite that, they are both considered two of the most exquisite novels ever written.
There are no “small” events or thoughts when it comes to creativity. Artistic works are endowed with an incredible capacity to view the objective reality which surrounds us in a completely different way, giving to reality breadth, depth and intensity.
What does the hero discover about himself at the end of the novel?
He discovers something of his fragility and contradictions. This is a fundamental thing for me. It’s true that human beings usually tend to mention their good qualities. But finding out about this fragility and these contradictions and trying to be reconciled with them gives him depth and richness. He also discovers that his soul hasn’t grown flabby with age and that in the depths of every human being there is a great capacity for renewal and, especially, to attract others and to love. In the sphere of passion, nothing dies completely. The fire of love may go out for a time, for a number of reasons. But it is able to burst into flame at any moment.
Is the novel a feminist one?
As I was writing Longing for the Woman Next Door, I didn’t intend to make it a feminist novel. But there is a strong, beautiful female presence in the book. The world of women is rich, varied and sometimes enigmatic. For this reason, it draws me to write about it.
This is the third time that one of your novels has been shortlisted for the Prize, after The Scents of Marie-Claire and The Women of al-Basatin in 2009 and 2012. What did you feel this time?
I feel the same joy as I did the previous two times.