Isabella Hammad on Finding Inspiration in Hamlet
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Isabella Hammad is the guest. Her new book, Enter Ghost, is out now from Grove Press.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: Let’s talk about the title of your novel, which is drawn from Hamlet and I think a stage direction, when King Hamlet is commanding his son to seek justice. It’s interesting to me, as you said earlier, that Hamlet came to you later in the process, because it seems so central to the book. How late?
Isabella Hammad: I mean, maybe not that late. Before I started writing, but in the conception period of the book, I thought, maybe I’ll do an Arabic play, maybe I’ll write my own play. I knew I wanted to do theater before I knew I wanted to do Hamlet, basically. But the working title until the very end was something else, which was vetoed by all the people I work with. I knew it would be vetoed, but I was still attached to it for the time being.
Brad Listi: What was it?
Isabella Hammad: Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot, which is the actual last line of the play. Everyone thinks it’s “then the rest is silence.” But it’s in fact, Fortinbras is about to invade. The play really ends with this incipient invasion scene. And I thought that was kind of an interesting title.
I think Enter Ghost is probably is a more salable title in the end, so I agreed.
Brad Listi: Well, yeah, I liked it. There’s so many different resonances between the title and things that happened in the book. I think it’s a good choice.
Sonia plays in the play Gertrude. And for people who either have never read Hamlet or people who haven’t read it in a long time—which describes me, so I was brushing up on my Hamlet—Gertrude is?
Isabella Hammad: The mother of Hamlet.
Brad Listi: And so why that role for Sonia? That seems like a deliberate choice.
Isabella Hammad: Sonia is 38, so one of the things she’s confronting in her career as an actor in London is that she’s no longer the ingenue and that possibly the window for hitting it big time in her field might be closing. That’s not always the case, obviously, for actresses. But it is a consideration. So she’s not playing Ophelia, she’s playing the mother character. So that’s one one element there.
Another element is that she’s also confronting the specter of motherhood, the role of the mother in general. Not being a mother herself, she then plays one. And her relationship with Wael, who’s the pop star playing Hamlet, becomes a kind of maternal relation as well. So there are these ghosts of motherhood that are brought out by playing this role.
Gertrude also is a very ambiguous character in the play. It’s uncertain whether or not she knows what happened to her husband, and she’s the victim of a lot of projection by Hamlet onto her. She doesn’t actually say very much. So there’s also some interesting elements to the character itself.
Isabella Hammad was born in London. Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions, The Paris Review, The New York Times and elsewhere. She was awarded the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and a 2019 O. Henry Prize. Her first novel The Parisian (2019) won a Palestine Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in the UK. She was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree, and has received literary fellowships from MacDowell and the Lannan Foundation. She is currently a fellow at the Columbia University Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris.