Interview with longlisted author Fatima Abdulhamid
When did you begin writing The Highest Part of the Horizon and where did the inspiration for it come from?
The Highest Part of the Horizon is my only novel that has personal roots; a blend of reality and fiction. It is as if I have been guided to a different, formerly unused part of my brain. In the midst of the grief over losing my only uncle—who was a father, friend and the first to introduce me to acts of rebellion—, I noticed that some of the women offering their condolences were cautiously glancing around in all directions, then exchanging information in whispers. The grievers were recalling memories of the departed and it was as if they had to behave in this way in that moment otherwise the stories would be forgotten. They recounted noble and bold acts he did in secret for their brothers and husbands. After his death, he seemed to be at once both famous and unknown. His memories and stories of his noble acts—hidden for months—kept surfacing one after the other; reconciling a married couple, giving someone a loan, retrieving someone’s lost rights, financially supporting a family. Thus many living stories gradually came up from those not related to him, as if they had vowed through this chatter not to lose him. Then I realized that love is the only thing that has the power to face death, and that writing is a power that surpasses fate and time. I imagined that eternal foe called death, gradually approaching, stopping after every step and in a deep emotionless voice, defending himself, explaining that which he can see and we cannot.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you completed it?
In general I have a plan to start from. It might be a small picture, a scene to be expanded upon—in a less confident state of mind—or a general idea of a character or two. I usually write the first draft of a novel, deleting more than I write. It is the first journey in a search for words. It is a draft of a story with characters hidden in the dark. Then another draft follows where light begins to shine through and gradually so do the differences between the characters, with some additions and modifications. Here I am more organized and methodical. After a while I hand over leadership entirely to the novel’s characters. They examine the problems and consequences, and I only write about them. This is in an advanced draft, perhaps the fifth.
I spend years writing, not because I am slow—which I am in any case—but because I treat writing with strictness and rigor. This is what happened with The Highest Part of the Horizon. Writing and rewriting it took seven years. The narrative of the Angel of Death alone was exhausting. How do you give death an appealing voice to talk about life’s horrors and joys; a voice that is not steeped in misery and not entirely imaginary? And how could I set it apart from the language of humans without falling into the trap of pretentious rhetoric? How do I give him the right mask that does not repel the reader? However, to be honest, I have lately felt guilt-free joy when a reader jumps with fear at the paragraphs where the Angel of Death speaks. I consider it a success for me although it is unfair for the novel. I think this is benign schizophrenia.
Do you have writing rituals?
I make up for lack of friends and children by creating a world in the company of books, reading, films and swimming; by fully activating my imagination and boldly immersing myself in the unknown all the time. I realized later that this suits me. Writing is the most solitary profession; this facilitates emotional immersion in the story.
The writing environment becomes constantly present, even if in the form of scattered notes that I jot down sporadically depending on what is available between my phone and journals. Then I write them out properly later on in separate documents. As for the time of writing, it has to be during the day. I am inherently a daytime person. I sit to write during the first hours of dawn and in the afternoon of each day. I barely write a word in the evening. For me, the evenings are for forgetting. I do not return to writing after 7pm, and I lose my enthusiasm right after sunset.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I’ve always wished to be out of the spotlight, to be away from others, to have the focus only on what I write, and to have my inner world only for myself. It is as if I am in a dream-like mental state. Writing for myself is not a fate but a challenge. a challenge to resist the writer’s urge to shine with pride, an ecstasy that I first witnessed and hated in the face of my grandmother. She was a brilliant storyteller with an incredible wealth of love stories and a captivating way of narrating them, but her brilliance only appeared in the presence of her audience. She would wait until the room was full of women then begin to tell her stories and poems with great generosity. In vain, my sister and I would beg her to tell us one of these stories later, just to the two of us. I think this is why I avoid interviews and literary discussions and prefer readings. Perhaps this is why I hid in a speaking mirror once and another time in an Angel of Death that towers over people’s heads. I consider writing incomplete without this freedom, this hiding, while maintaining a sense of dramatic humor, which is a family and personal trait.
But in my next project, there is an attempt to break away from this pattern. It is a kind of challenge that I think I need. I want to veer toward a more realistic, more historical style perhaps because I decided to go through a different experience this time. I don't want to put the carriage in front of the horse and get in my own way, but this time, I am working on something different.