Hisham Matar webchat

Author Hisham Matar joined Mumsnet Bookclub for a live webchat about his novel In the Country of Men on 30 October 07. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Autobiography? | Characters | Libya, politics and writing | Other writers and writing | Next book | Useful links

Is it autobiographical?

ChampagneSupernova: I loved the book. I'm sure I have read somewhere that this isn't really an autobiographical novel, but I was wondering how much of your own childhood you drew on to depict Suleiman's world so effectively?

TharSheBlows: I want to second the question about it being autobiographical. Is it? If so, did it change how people relate to you? It must be strange having people know such personal details of your life.

cosmicdancer: I loved the book and particularly found the end really harrowing - so many years wasted. Suleiman seemed very naive and seeking approval in his betrayals. Hisham Matar seems to have a lot of insight into the alcoholic parent. I also wonder if the book is semi-autobiographical.

HishamMatar: Firstly, I would like to thank you for this kind invitation and thank all the book club members for having selected my book. I would also like to say that I have never done this before. I am a web-chat virgin. And you are robbing me of my virtue. Virtue is a heavy burden, though. Very appropriate then I also have the honour of being your first, of many I hope, 'author of the month' authors. Now, about the autobiography question. In the beginning it surprised and slightly irritated me whenever someone would accuse my book of being autobiographical. Yes, I did see it as an accusation for I felt it questioned the creative process and the power of the human imagination. But now I take it as a compliment. Or I try to anyway. For it suggests that I have done my job well - that the story is believable. I have had better luck as a child than my protagonist – and suspect as a man, too, although I have no idea what Suleiman is up to these days. I am not a father, and so it did help that I was once a boy. Also, having a nephew who was then, luckily, nine. I watched him. Watching is something I do. I think writing begins with observing and attending to the world. It is ultimately a kind of praise.

Giggi: I also enjoyed the book, though found it harrowing at times. What reaction, if any, have you had from Libyans who were around in Libya at the time you were writing about?

HishamMatar: I am allergic to generalisations, so I cannot say how Libyans in general feel about my book. But from those who have read it and written to me, the reactions have been positive. No one has written about Libya in such a way before. Not even in Arabic. Literature dignifies what it focuses on, even if when it exposes shortcomings and failings. And so most have told me how good it felt to read themselves, or things they remember. Some exiles have found in it a kind of return. The book is not sold in Libya (needless to say, the authorities are not thrilled by it) but both the English and Arabic editions have been smuggled in and distributed clandestinely. I am still nudged by the thought that my book, my little book, has returned to the places I myself cannot visit. It brought to mind Ovid's (another exile) beautiful poem Tristia. An old favourite. Here is how it opens:

Little book – no, I don't begrudge it you – you're off to the city without me,
going where your only begetter is banned.
On your way, then – but penny-plain, as befits an exile's sad offering, and my present life.

ChampagneSupernova: What has surprised you most about people's reactions to the book (other than that you wrote it at all, if it was a secret)?

HishamMatar: apart from the fact that it got published, the presumption that it is autobiographic.


Notyummy: Hisham, what about the mother? How did you see her feelings about her husband as you were developing the character. Did she love him, resent him, or both?

HishamMatar: I think both. But more than that, I think she needed him.

yajorome: I just finished the book and found it extremely moving and gut-wrenching. My son is nine years old and I feel like I've gained a new perspective on him and how he could be thinking. In the press they sometimes talk about childhood being a casualty of war or a brutal regime. Do you think there's any way back from that? Or is that something that's easy to destroy and difficult if not impossible to rebuild? Also, do you think that there was anything that could have changed Suleiman's betrayals? It was too much to ask a nine year old (I say that as a mother in fierce protective mode), so I have a bit of a difficult time using 'betrayal' and its connotations. What was it that kept Kareem who he was?

HishamMatar: greetings to you and to your son. Suleiman is not alone in his acts of betrayal. Everyone in the book, in some way or another, betrays someone. It is almost the engine of the narrative. And who amongst us does not betrayal someone or, more often, themselves, at least once a day?

Squonk: do you feel that in writing the book you were speaking for the people of Libya? Or were you just writing a story?

HishamMatar: certainly not speaking for the people of Libya or anyone, not even for myself. I was, as you say, telling a story. That is what I do.

MadamePlatypus: Hisham, would it really have been possible for Sulieman to return to Libya? He seems to feel guilty about this? Was his guilt because he felt he should have done military service and seen his parents again?

HishamMatar: guilt is ultimately an abstract thought. It is based on our imagining of how the other feels, or on how we imagine ourselves to feel. Guilt is a kind of disappointment, where our idea of ourself does not correspond to our actions. Suleiman feels guilty not to have been there, regardless of the practical reasons to why he was not able to return.

TillyBookClub: Hisham, I think we're all (unsurprisingly) intrigued by the mother and have quite a few questions about her. Could you shed some light on her character, the way she feels about her husband (does she love him?), the reasons for her weakness?

HishamMatar: I have not met two people who agree about the mother. She loves and hates in equal measure. She is terribly irresponsible, and terribly responsible. She is, I think, the true hero of the book.

cosmicdancer: Hisham, I agree about the mother's dual personality. Have you personal experience of someone with an alcohol problem?

HishamMatar: Cosmicdancer, yes, I am afraid I have. It is a very unpleasant thing. But was useful in writing this book.

CarrieonScreamingMumsnet: Is it weird to sit here listening to folks discussing your characters as if they were real people, or after five years of living with them do they feel real to you? Is that how it has to feel when you are writing a novel?

HishamMatar: not weird, but close to it. Very flattering too. The characters in the book don't seem real in the way that my family and friends do. They exist in language and have oddly become more mysterious, not less, the more I got to know them on the page. For instance, I still cannot see Suleiman. I have no idea how he looks. But were he to step into my study now, God forbid, I would recognise him. Writing the book I sometimes caught his scent. That was enough.

TillyBookClub: Does Suleiman deliberately set out to punish his parents with his betrayal, or is it naive, thoughtless behaviour?

HishamMatar: I cannot explain why Suleiman did what he did. All I know is that it seemed truthful. It was his nature. His ability or inability. He is fallible. Like the rest of us. He regrets and wants to be better and fails and regrets again. Talking about reactions to the book that have surprised me, this is one of them. I am surprised that he is seen as being all that bad. I think he did fairly well with the cards that were dealt him. But I would say that, wouldn't I? Because I love him. You can't write about people you don't love. I even loved those two that tied the noose. I have no choice. To write is to love.
MadamePlatypus: When did you decide what would happen to Kareem? Did you know he would have a 'happy' ending at the beginning of the book?

beanymum: Good question. I would like to know if the characters' destinies were planned at the beginning ar evolved as the book was written.

HishamMatar: I don't plot before I write, so I rarely know what will happen next. I like it that way because it keeps me on my toes and reminds me that being the Author, the authority over the narrative, is an illusion. So, it was a complete surprise that things had turned out so well for Kareem. Or so well from Suleiman's point of view. Kareem is lucky only in Suleiman's imagination. Who knows how Kareem feels?

Libya, politics and writing

TillyBookClub: Hisham, in light of your Gadaffi answer and also to pick up on a few requests a while back, could you recommend an accessible book about Libya and its history for those who want to find out more?

HishamMatar: there's an excellent book by Mansour Omar El-Kikhia, who is professor at the University of Texas, I think, called Libya's Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction. In it he unpicks the complexity of the Qaddafi rule. It fairly well written, and short. But very much written in an academic style. Still worth reading, I think.

beanymum: Hisham, would the Libyan government have a file open on you or would they not consider you under their influence or a threat that could be contained anymore?

HishamMatar: I would not know. But I would be very surprised if they didn't. After all, my father is held in one of their prisons, and has been since March 1990.

beanymum: I'm very sorry to hear that your father has been a victim of the regime. Do you know what his 'crime' was and do you have any contact with him?

HishamMatar: my father was one of the most prominent opponents to the dictatorship. We have no contact with him. The last letter he had to smuggle out and that had reached us was 1995.

MadamePlatypus: Hisham, do you think that Gadaffi is becoming more acceptable in the west? I googled the top Libyan news stories and they were all about oil treaties, Italy paying reparations for colonialism and Darfur peace talks.

HishamMatar: 'Acceptable in the West?' Yes. But less unjust to his own people, no.

yajorome: What do you hope people will take away from the book? It certainly helps bring the spotlight back on political prisoners and the abuses of the regime. Is there any action you hope people will take?

HishamMatar: Saul Bellow was once asked if novels should have an ethical drive. He said that novels should be, above all things, entertaining. That an unethical novel is a boring one. So I hope that those who read my book find it entertaining. This is me the novelist speaking. But as a citizen, as a British citizen, I take my government to task about its chumminess with the Qaddafi regime.

Other writers and writing

SusanNevs: What book(s) are you reading now? (Loved the Borges reference.)

HishamMatar: I am reading the entire works, or those in translation at least, of Robert Walser. An excellent Swiss-German author. But stopped to read The Gathering, which I have just finished.

Squonk: If you could give one piece of advice to a would-be author (not me, btw, I'm just curious) what would it be?

HishamMatar: Read and write. Those are the two things that help the most after living. And read the best, and try to write better than you ever thought you could.

Next book

Squonk: When is your next book due out and is it also set in Libya? 

HishamMatar: I have pledged a vow of silence. Not out of superstition as much as I feel that the book I am writing now owns all of the language that can describe it. Some of my most intimate friends were shocked after I finished In the Country of Men; they had no idea that in the five years they knew me I was writing a novel. I intend to keep the same practice. But thanks for asking.

TillyBookClub: Hisham, you've been a brilliant virgin web chatter. Hope it was good for you too. Thank you very, very much indeed for answering all our questions and giving us so much insight into your excellent novel. We'll all be looking out for the next one and, in the meantime, good luck with the hard graft of writing it.

HishamMatar: I misquoted Bellow, and that is a dangerous thing. So, just before I go, what he said was that a boring book is an unethical book; not that an unethical book was boring. A very different thing indeed. Good night.

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Last updated: 9 months ago