Shortlist Interview with Najwa Binshatwan
Where were you when the shortlist was announced, and what was your reaction?
I was in my flat, feeding the pigeon standing on my balcony, thinking about several things and about nothing at all.
I was definitely in a good mood after the announcement. I even copied Mads Mikkelsen’s dance, in the film “Another Round”. I kicked the bag of grain in the air and frightened the pigeon.
Why did you make the main protagonist and narrator a twin?
They are two faces of one spirit, which I wanted to embody in a long-lasting love. This love was not sexual, nor was it based on benefits or material gain; it was love for love’s sake only.
Concerto Qurina Eduardo draws a panorama of Libya from the 1970s until the fall of Gaddafi, through a single family of Greek origins. How does the novel differ from other novels dealing with Libyan history and major political and social themes?
There are not enough novels dealing with the modern period in Libya. There should be more written about it, in varying styles, so that we can appreciate the differences and diversity in what has been written.
Until now, I have been pursuing my own particular fictional path, making my own literary mark. Serious narrative should always strive to make a unique impression.
Why a Greek family, in particular?
If it wasn’t them, it would be others [of a different nationality], since Libya is a mixture of many ethnicities which have intermingled and intermarried through time, in the same place, creating the Libyan character we see today and giving it its particularity.
Saying that someone is a Libyan of such and such origins is merely defining their ancestry as the identity card does.
Does the character of the grandfather resemble anyone in your family?
Yes, he is very much like my father, who endured hardships patiently.
Despite the tragic events in the novel, we also find humanity, love and solidarity between members of the family and society. Is there a glimmer of hope to be found through these human relationships?
Human relationships win out in the end, according to the novel, despite the differences and conflicts spoiling them. There is the closeness or friendship between old and young, between those who have remained in the country and others who have left. In relationships, people can choose whether to be friendly and close, or in disharmony and distanced from each other. Relationships are a product made by humans, like the simultaneous manufacture of bullets and bullet-proof things. A person is free to choose the kind of manufacturing to which he belongs, and he is responsible for the results of his choice.
Why is there a focus on the theme of the Roman and Greek antiquities in Libya, and why did you make the heroine, Reem, interested in them?
Libya is full of antiquities dating from the time of the Romans, who came as conquerors, and from the Greeks who emigrated to Libya, fleeing from famine and wars, or because of trade. Similarly, Phoenicians came from Tyre and Sidon.
They founded many complete cities, full of life. There is a story behind every piece they left behind and someone needs to research all the stories and make them better known. The largest complete Roman theatre from the era of the Roman Empire can be found in Libya, not in Europe, where the Romans had come from. The city of the dead which extends across a vast area of the ruins in Cyrene in eastern Libya, does not just consist of the graves of souls. It represents the lives and stories of those who once existed; and their descendants are still here, spread widely across Libya.
There is so much recorded by history and not yet touched by literature. When I say “theatre”, I mean plays and drama enacted on expansive theatres on our shores. When I say “necropolis”, I mean people busy with philosophy, mathematics, geography, sport, farming, creating legends and spreading the Christian message at the beginning of Christianity.
The heroine, Reem, is rooted in these things. She is the human descendant of those towering ruins, the modern offspring of that ancient history, lost in time.
Did you struggle with your inner censor as you wrote, because of the sensitive issues dealt with in the novel – and despite the fact you live in Rome – and how did you overcome that?
The instinct of fear within me is always active. It is almost a separate gland in my body, since I have always lived in fear. I am even afraid when crossing a one-way street. I look in both directions, even though I know it’s just one way. I’m afraid of swimming pools, even though I don’t swim. I’m afraid of death, even though I know I will die.
And since there is absolutely no hope of getting free of my fears, I have made an agreement with fear, according to which he leaves me at bedtime so I can sleep peacefully and returns to continue his life with me afterwards. And since he has kept faithfully to his part of the bargain, I have learned to walk in my sleep and then to talk; and little by little, I have added to those two things, writing, hoping and dreaming.
What was the impact of the shortlisting of your novel The Slave Yards in 2017 on the book’s success and reach?
It was like the effect of the light of the moon on water, and perfume on the air, and a lavender field on the wind.
Now, for the first time, editions of the same novel [Concerto Qurina Eduardo] have been published in several Arab regions: there have been separate editions in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, the Arabian Gulf and Palestine.
The Slave Yards did not have that good fortune, but it enabled Concerto Qurina Eduardo to have it, easily. Before, I was called “the author of The Slave Yards”, and now I am known as “the author of The Slave Yards and Concerto”, together.
My journey of a thousand miles began when I stumbled.