Interview with shortlisted author Fatima Abdulhamid
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
Unlike the longlist, I knew when the shortlist would be announced, and I was getting bored of my own voice telling me how unlikely it was that I would be that lucky. And since life must get complicated, I was with some people who did not know I am a novelist to begin with. This is why I received the news silently and with a big smile. My only thought then was a quote from American writer and poet Raymond Carver: Dreams are what we wake for.
One of the remarkable things about this novel is that it is written from the point of view of the Angel of Death. Why?
He is to blame for every life we lose—even if we give up on blaming him and even if we are patient—which is all we can do. Instead of blaming him, I tried to pretend to understand him. I imagined him standing alone facing a trial by angry humans, where they demand to cut ties with all his heritage, even if every family wants to exact revenge on him for one life, or more. I imagined him to be envious of us when, defeated, he says in self-defense, “I will stand before Him, in deep, meditative silence, on the hill of a world where everyone has perished, but eternity is for Him and you. You are of His spirit. But I, who did everything he asked of me with total devotion, will have to leave on my own. Then all your pains, deaths, and screams will gather in my throat, and I will let out a resounding cry that will awaken the universe anew. Then you will be resurrected, and I will be only one to perish.” I think what led me to write this passage is that I began to view the angel differently, perhaps with more compassion.
The novel is a mix of depth and wit, sarcasm and gravity, grief and fun. How did you find the right language and style to express all of this simultaneously?
It is my way of expression. I am not capable of communicating in any other way. I did not strive to achieve it, because sarcasm is part of who I am, even if I am watching the world go up in flames. I do not like pessimism, and my previous works say that about me too. I do not exaggerate when I say that fun is part of me. I am not companiable, or even that nice, but I am lighthearted when things get dark. It is an emergency exit that I regularly rely on in my life, and it usually works. That is why I recommend it to everyone!
The novel tackles marriage from a different perspective. We often read stories of underage girls being married off against their will. Why did you choose to have this happen to an underage boy?
I looked at photos of an underage couple on the computer. They were surrounded by giants disfiguring the skies of both children with their heads. Only the families were happy in that image. As for the two young ones, their light was being dimmed as they drowned in heavy makeup. Both were afraid. The henna that decorated the bride’s hand was intricate and far apart, so much so that the ugly drawing seeped out from under the gold bangles, and between the fingers that were forced to entangle, making their way across the groom’s hand, which in turn also tensed up to where his fingers appeared to be thin, runaway branches. He had a bejeweled dagger hanging on his slim waist. Meanwhile, on my desk sat a photo of my son who is the same age as the groom, holding a ball, with unlimited green grass behind him to play in. That was the first spark.
On the other hand, almost all the marriages were arranged by the families and not the couples. And they all failed one way or another. Why?
I watched many couples, and I can assure you that no one is a professional at marriage. Marriage is a very realistic platform for an old narrative, but it is improvised to a great extent. The families put you up on that stage, watch your life which becomes open to the public, and meddle whenever they see you falter, bringing you back if that is called for. Then you become rattled, confused between the reality at home and the actor on stage. A constant contrast between who you are and who they want you to be. You are constantly in doubt. Perhaps that is why the institution is difficult to comprehend for some. Half of the couple might collapse from within but remain stoic, then you think you have found the solution, so you create for them a safe exit from the marriage, but a little revolution rises within them, defending the grace of this marriage, and flashes of the most beautiful moments with their partner run before their eyes, and they appear to be plentiful! Actually, I did not write about failed marriages in The Highest Part of the Horizon, I simply wrote about realistic ones.
The main character lost his childhood and adolescence due to his early marriage and spends the rest of his life attempting to compensate for this loss by building matchstick houses and playing football. How did you evoke all the details of this world of childhood?
The fragile logic of this world says that everything is formed during early childhood, and Soliman would not have survived his childhood, which was rotting inside of him, if he hadn’t shared it with the world. Of course, he had several ways of manifesting it, building matchstick houses; his innocent, constant awe of his beloved, as if he were seeing things for the first time; the way he threw sweets at his neighbor’s window; and the questions he never ceased to pose to his children, because he did not have the answers the way adults do. I created the details of this world, simply, because I was writing about a big child, who started a fire, not to cause any harm, but to tell the world he is alone.
Which authors impacted you as a novelist?
Through writing we become aware of what we do not know. As much as we write, we learn about ourselves and the world around us, and to write we must read. I cannot say that I learned something through reading a writer from a Stream of Consciousness genre or another who writes Magical Realism or that I learned nothing because I wasted time reading a Detective Story. I do not know how some writers are able to specify this. I envy them their ability to delineate exactly who influenced them. I was influenced by every author I read, even the bad ones. Reading bad books opens your eyes to mistakes that you should avoid when writing. Sometimes we must go along bumpy roads in order to train our senses to be constantly alert.
What are you reading now?
I am reading Marie Cardinal’s Les Mots Pour Dire, in translation by Abdel Hady Al-Faqir.