Get The Lithub Daily
Follow us on TwitterMy Tweets
Adania Shibli’s signature style comes from holding back. The silence in both her novels (We Are All Equally Far From Love and Touch) build an unnerving suspense, all set against the beautiful and troubled scenery of Palestine. And it is through the quotidian that the world erupts violently.
We Are All Equally Far From Love is both love story and tragedy. The novel’s gripping mystery is also at the heart of the elusive depicted within—just like in Touch too, where family dynamics are just as interesting and problematic as the Sabra and Shatila massacre that looms over everything. Violence in Adania’s work ripples without indulging in sentimentality.
That subtlety is also present in her latest short, included in the Freeman’s family issue. It details the time Adania and her family received a strange phone call from the Israeli Army: the message was to evacuate the building they were in because it was about to be bombarded. In three brief pages Adania’s writing emerges urgently without ever neglecting the poetry in the mundane. That’s Adania Shibli: subtle yet alarming, quiet and effective; profound, playful, and potent.
José García: Was it a conscious decision not to be explicit about Palestine in your work? To have the reader disappear into the drama rather than the scenery?
Adania Shibli: Both novels, I would say, are very immersed in the Palestinian landscape and even designed by it. Maybe what seems to be absent is the external view about Palestine, which is so dominant given the constant media coverage.
For instance, the media would reveal a major event like the Sabra and Shatila massacre to the non-Palestinian public in a specific form. Whereas in the Palestinian context it will be experienced differently and in many different ways—that includes the inability to grasp it by child, or parents trying to save a child from such event, which is what parents do daily in Palestine. Touch traces this major and very present act in Palestine; but it is a form of experience that is often absent from the news that reaches those outside Palestine. So the book relates to Sabra and Shatila as a massacre that is incomprehensible for a child. But still this is just one way of experiencing it, and this goes for many other events, political, social, and even economic.
Then in We are All Equally Far from Love, the Palestinian landscape has designed the novel in the very inability of the characters to move. So rather than describing the checkpoints or the prevention of movement, it follows the consequence of these limitations on movement. The characters are confided to claustrophobic spaces or are physically and emotionally paralyzed. And in relation to the latter—the emotional paralysis—the novel delineates the consequence of cruelty of living in a condition of political oppression on the personal level, where the human soul, and its ability to love, is deformed. So rather than exteriorizing the Palestinian experience, by turning it into a spectacle for others, both novels follow the consequences of daily life for Palestinians, on the mundane and the banal.
JG: How did home and nationhood shape your experiences as a child?
AS: As one lives in a place that seems like a punishment for a crime they didn’t commit, it raises harsh questions in relation to simple ideas like justice, or it’s absence, at an early age. As a child you don’t really separate between the two, between the injustice of why some people are more privileged than others.
These were questions that I tried to tackle in different ways also at a young age; either oppose them loudly, or be on the side of the strong, or create your own world where you can imagine different realities—this was the one that repeatedly attracted me the most. Either through reading or through watching silently what I’m witnessing, I turned the events slightly different, imagined other possible worlds. It was an addictive game, and I remember catching myself so immersed in imagining that I felt sometimes ashamed about not remembering the past like others around me did. So maybe the realization of the repeated injustice that one cannot escape in the context of Palestine was the first force to push me early on into literature.
JG: Touch and We Are All Equally Far From Love both have a wide array of strong female characters. And I don’t just mean strong as an independent women. But they’re also loud, complicated and sometimes flawed characters. They leap out of the page with their personality and their blemishes. How important is femininity—and female characters—in your writing?
AS: To be frank, I never think of female or male. I would say I never relate to myself as female; it is just a perspective on life. It can be by coincidence that my works have many female characters. This might change, or not.
In my new novel, which is composed of two chapters, each chapter has one protagonist, one is male and the other is female. But you’re right, when I wrote the first chapter with the male protagonist, I was very conscious it was a male, since it was a world of order and power—a world I would not like to be part of. It is entertaining to play it, even in terms of imagination, but not very intriguing. The female character is more hesitant, messy; she stutters and works in vain. I’m more attracted to such characters, like the male character in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour—the male character who has an ugly scar on his face.
I don’t relate femininity to sexuality. Femininity to me is about the opposition to power and order in the sadistic fashion.
JG: There is a lot of silence in your stories. A lot of mystery and quiet intimacy too. How do you balance that thick silence with the action?
AS: One can find the answer in music. Whenever I hear music, I realize that the entire musical action and movements are only possible because of the silence that permeates a musical piece. I’m so attached to that silence and what it does, or what it can do before a sound emerges, or even what it leads to.
JG: Both of your books are very family driven as well. What role does family play in your writing process?
AS: We are born into families, without choosing them, and that is the first experience for many of us. It is that lack of choice that I wonder about: how to live a life you have not chosen, and whether you would eventually choose consciously. I still wonder in fact.
JG: This brings me to your short piece for Freeman’s: Family. What inspired you to approach such a broad topic (family) through that story?
AS: That was actually the moment I realized for the first time that I enforce this lack of choice on someone else, on my kids. Their father and I had the choice of being together or not, not them. So my kids found themselves there, in that moment so extreme—“This is the kind of call made by the Israeli Army when it is about to bombard a residential building. The moment someone answers the call, they relinquish their right to accuse the army of war crimes.” This was a realization prompted by fear: fear for their safety. To this day I wonder how they will relate to that moment, and if they will remember it. The piece in Freeman’s is a testimony for them to go back to, evidence that it happened for my kids to revisit.
JG: I assume that that call was quite unnerving. However, coming from a violent and unpredictable country myself, I understand that one also tends to get desensitized and habituated to violence. What can we do to fight against that “getting used to”?
AS: Can we do anything against it? I wonder.
I always find a place with words to create parallel possibilities where dehumanization thrives. However, in real life, you need to neutralize all your emotions and become numb, but then writing neutralizes that neutralization. Other people don’t have words for their rescue. But something else, a walk, a pavement, a tree, a stone, endless minor objects that turn into the place where they practice their humanity, a place where oppression cannot reach or destroy.
I visited an exhibition this year in Palestine called City Exhibiton 5. It’s dedicated to the idea of “Reconstructing Gaza,” a term that we hear daily since 2014. The participants in the show, students and young people, reconstructed the city with its own rubble. Then they offered the objects that were dear to them to the people of Gaza, from a dry flower to a keychain. It’s fascinating to see what these people chose. One even offered to bring aid to the people of Gaza by offering a book of poetry by an unknown poet.
JG: Do you see the “getting used to” violence as defense mechanism?
AS: I see it is a martial art movement actually. The oppressor wants first to destroy your wish to live, and then you neutralize it by acting as if this is normal. But then you keep a secret hidden zone that the oppressor finds so minor that they wouldn’t bother to destroy. I remember myself being investigated two times by officers from the Israeli Intelligence who wanted to know what I was writing and about what. When I told them it is all about failed love stories they lost interest in me.
JG: How will the US election require a new “getting used to” where you are from, or is it more of the same?
AS: I’m not sure that one can blame the gradual malice we’ve been witnessing recently on the results of the latest elections. I don’t see how, if the results were different, this would be different. The previous US administrations didn’t do much to counteract that malice. Maybe it will get worse, but it has been getting worse and worse for quite some time, to a degree that it seems to me that that malice has its own tempo, its own life, and is somehow unaffected by any elections.