Interview with shortlisted author Mohamed Alnaas
Where were you when the shortlist was announced? What was your reaction?
I was in Cairo. I had an appointment at a café in Zamalek with an Algerian journalist. My friend was late and only arrived a few minutes before the announcement. We talked a little and were then joined by a French translator who lives in Cairo. We got to talking and our stories intertwined, but we were soon interrupted with a phone call from a close friend letting me know that Bread on the Table of Uncle Milad made it to the shortlist. I thanked him and kept the happiness tucked in my heart from my two companions. I put my phone on flight mode as I could not answer the congratulatory calls. I stayed with them for two hours and could only celebrate with others after my return to the hotel. There, I allowed the happiness to flow as one would open the tap for trapped water. Then began a journey in the company of my publisher first, then friends and family.
Milad’s story highlights his failed attempts to become the “ideal man” according to his society’s standards. How was the experience of writing about this society’s criteria through the story of one man?
I wrote the novel to save Milad from his alienation. Despite the many Libyan proverbs we have, there is only one that shows the anti-man: a family and their uncle Milad. Apart from that, all oral tradition celebrates in its proverbs the ideal man. Sometimes it is the one who died in historical battles such as El-Hany and Chad. Sometimes it is the one who personally trains his wife. Another time it is the rooster who controls his hens, or the knight who reins in his mare or wife. And on and on until you can draw a clear picture of that man. As for the saying: a family and their uncle Milad, it is as alone as Milad himself. It does not portray a real image of this person for those who exist outside the Libyan context. What would a Tunisian, Egyptian or Emirati reader understand from this proverb if I don’t tell the whole story? Nothing. That’s why there is one man’s story (Milad’s), aiming to question and interrogate this proverb as much as possible.
For example, Milad had to be a maternal uncle. This means that he had to have no brothers, because the paternal uncle in Libyan tradition takes the father’s place, not the maternal uncle who comes second. He also had to have several sisters, not one. A single sister would not influence his life as four would. He had to be the only man in this family (which is made up of his mother, sisters and wife). His father had to die early on in his life. And because I know the context of the proverb, Milad had to have the character of a “weak” man, which means that the women in his family had to have liberal tendencies, even if they didn’t speak up about them, which would negatively impact his character, life and choices. And thus, we can dissect the proverb and build the character and story from it.
This story appeared to me difficult and complex at first. But as I began following the thread of the character, it suddenly became entertaining. I needed models of “ideal men” such as Milad’s father, Abdel Salam, and El-Madonna. They are all multiple images in which Milad searches for new manhood. But the novel as a whole is the novel of a single man (Milad). The man whose features have been effaced in the canon of Libyan literature and in oral tradition. This novel aims to bring the features back to his face.
The novel’s ending saw a big transformation in Milad’s character that surprised many readers. Did you plan for this transformation all along?
In my opinion, I don’t see a big transformation in the ending. The novel is built on intersecting timelines. For example, the real ending of the novel is its beginning, because its events happen at the time following what he did to Zainab at the end of the book. I did not plan anything while I was writing. I only know that the novel could only have one of two endings: either Milad sacrifices himself, or he sacrifices Zainab. I planted signs for both of these endings throughout the novel. I merely had to follow the thread of the story as readers did. Zainab had to be either really asleep as Milad claimed at the beginning of the novel, or to be as the reader discovers later. That’s why I was surprised by the ending, as I had even forgotten about the signs I planted for her earlier.
What led Milad to sacrifice his love in order to live in peace, free of psychological conflict? Milad is at once both the executioner and the victim. He is the accumulation of decades of silence. And the silence contains a geography, layers and a rumbling that we cannot hear unfortunately until the volcano erupts. That’s why, in my opinion, it would be strange that the character does not experience a drastic transformation at the end of the novel.
Milad says that his relationship with Zainab saved him and calmed his soul. Bread in the novel is also a main character and we see how strong Milad’s relationship to bread is at the end, even more than his relationship with his wife. Tell us more about love and bread in the novel.
Love is bread in this novel. Milad’s relationship with people and with Zainab in particular is a reflection of his relationship with bread. Milad thinks that it is Zainab who saved him and calmed his soul. He didn’t know that bread did this before and after her. Thus, Milad doesn’t love Zainab as much as he loves bread. In his last suicide attempt, the loaf of bread he forgot at home was what saved him. And it was his relationship with Zainab which made him try to commit suicide by drowning at sea. Thus, the role of bread is central to the novel. The last chapter was basically two recipes: a recipe for bread, and a recipe for getting rid of Zainab. The first recipe is Milad’s way to return to his normal life, to return to what he loves and what he almost hated the world for. As such, bread is the master of the novel. Bread is the real hero that holds the soul of the false hero (Milad) and his actions. As always, bread is the master of man. It deceives him with its fragility and unique taste, only to control him.
Milad is the only narrator in the novel. The reader only hears from him. Why did you choose this technique? Is it to leave room for the reader to question his perspective?
Milad had to be the only narrator in this novel for several reasons, most important of which is that Milad’s character is trapped behind the bars of notions of masculinity. We had to hear his voice because all the other voices were known and familiar. We had to give the microphone to Milad to break a long history of silence. He had to talk to us himself, and to be at ease while doing so. That is why the digression in the novel was intentional, to reflect Milad’s soul which longs to tell his story, to speak, to evade the main subject and return to it as he pleases.
The novel’s title, Bread on the Table of Uncle Milad, is clear in that it gives bread more importance over the other characters. None of the other characters had the same relationship that Milad had with bread. If I wrote about the point of view of any other character about bread, the novel would have been ruined.
The joy of the novel came from being told through Milad’s point of view. I did not think of writing Zainab’s point of view for example, for several reasons, most important of which is that Zainab is the voice of the repressed Libyan woman. Keeping her side of the story out of the novel is another story, and interpretation. This allows the reader to write her story as they please. I do not know to this day whether Zainab cheated on Milad. And I don’t need to know.
Which authors influenced you as a writer?
At first a writer is influenced by every good book they read but I can name a few authors who shaped important milestones in my life. When I read Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, I desperately wanted to write a novel. That was 11 years ago. When I read Ibrahim Al-Koni’s novels, I knew that Libya carried a different voice and I fell in love with Libyan literature and I searched for it in every Libyan writer; in Kamel Maghur and his short stories, Khalifa Al-Fakhry, Sadeq Naihoum, and others. When I read Naguib Mahfouz, the stories of my city opened up before me and I knew how I could use my personal experience and surroundings to write about them. I learned from Nikos Kazantzakis the art of astonishment, and from George Orwell political satire, and from Orhan Pamuk the love of small details around me. I am still learning to this day and if you ask me the same question in some years, I might give you a totally different answer. I like comparing literature to a rainbow because it symbolizes plurality, difference and richness, much like human experiences. When we try to limit it to a single color, both literature and man will suffer from stereotypes and stagnation. This is why I try to benefit from all my reading experiences. When I write, I only look at the rainbow spread across Libya’s sky and above its soil.
What are you reading now?
Some time ago I finished reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and although I read it in the middle of Ramadan, I think about it daily as if I am still reading it.
Now I am reading various books in parallel. Some are historical such as issues of the Libyan magazine Laa which was one of the prominent free voices in the country in the 1990s. This magazine made me discover many things about Libya and its history. With every article or investigative report, I enjoy discoveries and I am surprised at the same time by some things that I am learning for the first time.
I am also reading an anthology of short stories over the last 60 years in the United States. The book includes stories by famous American authors such as Stephen King and Chimamanda Adiche, whose novels overwhelmed their short stories.
And because I am always keen to have a scientific book by my side, since March I have been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow in English. It brings together economics, psychology and sociology and its main idea is that as humans we have two ways of thinking. One is slow which we usually use for complex processes and the second is fast which we use for fast processes, such as judging someone. Perhaps that is what Libyans do with Milad and the oppressed people on this planet who are like him.