Isabella Hammad: The Idea of Apolitical Art is Very Political
The Author of Enter Ghost in Conversation With Olivia Watson
Reading Isabella Hammad’s second novel, Enter Ghost, which came out in early April, was for me a peculiar form of time-travel: Hammad renders the Palestinian context with such quiet skill that I found myself abruptly in 2014 and 2015, when I was living in Ramallah in the West Bank. Her writing artfully captures the far-reaching impacts of the occupation on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, the entanglement of the personal and political, and the beauty of the moments that arise when an individual becomes part of something larger than themselves.
The protagonist of Enter Ghost, Sonia, is a British-Palestinian actor in her late thirties who flees London following a breakup to visit her sister in Haifa over the summer. While there, Sonia finds herself drawn into a production of Hamlet being staged in the West Bank. As the weeks pass, Sonia discovers for herself the challenges of staging a play in the occupied territories, and learns more about both her family’s past and the contemporary realities of Palestine.
I was introduced to Hammad via a mutual friend in 2019. Hammad’s first book, The Parisian won a Palestine Book Award, a Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Betty Trask Award. She was recently listed as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. We spoke via video call about the interplay of past and present, the political and the literary, and hope and despair.
Olivia Watson: Many of the characters in Enter Ghost experience a political awakening throughout the course of the book. What I liked particularly about your rendering of this was the implicit understanding that such awakenings are not static, but a process of evolution. Did your own ideas about and understanding of the situation in Palestine change or evolve while writing these characters?
Isabella Hammad: My experience of writing two novels so far is that I kind of know where it’s going to end up, but then there’s plenty of discovery along the way. I’m interested in that slightly old-fashioned model of character-arcs in fiction and I’m always interested in how people grow and change in real life, particularly politically.
I’m always compelled by how people develop a sense of being part of something larger than themselves or in being part of a group, and of what their role in such a group might be. I think that the novel as a form—being largely focused on individual protagonists—specifically allows you to explore this relationship between the collective and the individual. Both my novels deal with turning points or moments of change which in real life are usually much slower.
OW: That’s interesting—the significance of form. It’s something you seem to play a lot with in your writing. In Enter Ghost you interspersed play scripts with narrative, so that the reader is occasionally confronted with a sudden shift in perspective. Could you talk a little bit about your intentions in using those two different forms together?
IH: I think the initial impulse came from wanting to mine the theatrical metaphor in every possible way. I was trying to explore approaches to describing and portraying military occupation, and aspects of the occupation that are quite theatrical. So it seemed natural that at some point I would try to write using play scripts, and I ended up using the play script for when the characters are rehearsing.You can have art that is ambivalent and ambiguous and also political, that fulfills aesthetic standards and provides that deep pleasure of encountering moral complexity.
There’s one practical reason which is that it allows me to get a lot of voices into the room very quickly without needing the plugging material of “he said,” “she said,” that kind of stuff, and it also allows me a bit of space outside of Sonia’s perspective. It suddenly levels the voices and gives a breather from the first-person narration. And I like that kind of leveling, like a switch, so that you feel the partiality of the first-person narrator quite concretely, that she’s just one of many.
I also liked—and I don’t really know if this comes off in the reading experience—but I liked the idea that obviously a play script is like a record but it’s also an instruction. It kind of implies futurity in some way, formally. Even if in the reading of it you just take it as a conversation that’s happening rather than an instruction to be played out.
OW: Exactly, and it worked too in that it mirrors the way in which Palestinians, particularly those living in the West Bank, are forced into playing these somewhat ghoulish roles, for example at checkpoints or when encountering soldiers. So that going about your daily life is political, everything personal is political.
I noticed that both Enter Ghost and your first novel, The Parisian, perform this kind of blending between the personal, the political, and also the literary. How do you balance making that political impact against other more conventionally literary goals?
IH: I think the aesthetic and the political are more entwined for me than separate. There is a classic Western way of deeming art that is made with a particular political positioning as less “good” aesthetically because it doesn’t have sufficient ambivalence or ambiguity.
To put it historically, this idea was pushed by the CIA during the 1950s and 60s under the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had a lot to do with which books were canonized, not only in the US and Europe but across the world, and which was famously affiliated to the Paris Review and actually funded the Iowa Writers Workshop. So this principle of pushing art without a political agenda was, in fact, highly political.
But I think that you can have art that is ambivalent and ambiguous and also political, that fulfills aesthetic standards and provides that deep pleasure of encountering moral complexity, the kind you have when you read a really good book or watch a really good movie, and it’s still political, still political in a specific sense in that it has a sense of purpose in the world. I think you can do both those things. That’s something that I’m interested in: how do you do both those things?I also worry about whether cultural producers overstate their role in making change.
So in this novel, we’re focused on one character whose arc, to put it very simplistically, entails becoming less self-involved and more involved with others: it navigates interiority in a first-person narrator within an intense political context and it explores how and where psychology and political action meet.
OW: Do you think, given events like the #MeToo movement, BLM, these large political struggles that are happening now, that this way of seeing art is changing? That there’s more of an appetite for overtly political literature?
IH: I do think there’s been a change, yes, and I have another position which is that I think it can be limiting if, for instance, the only kinds of plays that get state funding in Britain—at least so I’m told by actor friends—or the kinds of books that get pushed are those directly addressing specific social and political issues, that announce their progressive politics very loudly. Anything that looks like dogma I’m very suspicious of.
My suspicious self also thinks that while there might be a shift in the sphere of cultural production, this isn’t reaching actual political representation, for example, or the highest sphere where power is actually dealt out: that actually hasn’t changed. Of course if you look at America and you see the backlash there, the way they’re banning books, this reminds us that books are powerful—but I also worry about whether cultural producers overstate their role in making change, or at least that people think that if they promote leftist art that that’s somehow enough. I hope that doesn’t sound too negative.
OW: Only in the sense that you are recognizing the limitations of literature to effect change in the real world. And I think this is a pertinent point in the context of Palestine. There’s so much about the context that invites despair, and then hope, and then more despair.
In the novel these elements are personified in the fate of the hunger striker Rashid, which both crushes Sonia and moves her to action. Does it ever feel hopeless to write about Palestine?
IH: It’s easy to feel hopeless, and I worry about not being useful. I think that often novelists feel useless. When you’re working on very long projects on your own every day, making scenes, it’s hard to see the bigger view.
In fact, it’s better not to look at the bigger view because you’ve got to just keep going, you have to have some faith in something larger panning out, and I think even the act of writing a book requires that sort of faith. And I guess that you have to have faith that you’re one drop in a wave, you know, that these things will cumulatively make a major contribution.
But it’s very hard to think that your own individual contribution is going to make substantial change. It’s about the connections you make with others, about participating in a broader conversation, about being part of a generation of people talking and writing and making art and films about Palestine.It’s been specifically difficult for Palestinians to narrate their condition, very difficult to make people listen.
I expressed some reservations just now about only pushing literature that clearly declares a progressive politics, but for Palestine this has been very important, since so often Western progressive politics exclude Palestine, and it’s been specifically difficult for Palestinians to narrate their condition, very difficult to make people listen.
And I do think we’re seeing a change now. And that has to do with generational shifts, with emigration and generations growing up with other languages as their first language. And with other kinds of shifts happening as well, globally.
OW: That theme of generational shifts crops up a lot in the novel, in the tension between Sonia’s generation and her father’s, and in the different ways in which Palestinian families manage their situations. Many Palestinian families were separated in 1948 and later, including today when members of the diaspora might be denied entry into Israel or the West Bank. The intention of this policy is to weaken familial connections and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but in the book these ties across borders also have a kind of strength. How much is that a fantasy?
IH: I think it is some kind of fulfillment of fantasy. Not that it isn’t real, I mean look at 2021, the unity in the First and Second Intifada, that’s an expression of that as well, right? This attempt to divide was overcome and I think that has to do with new channels—the Palestinian population communicating with itself via social media and the internet, all these things contribute to engagement among that separated body politic, which is also global. There are things that make it more difficult—the actual land is disappearing, the question of sovereignty.
So I don’t know that I was necessarily positioning that globality as a strength—although in some aspects you could call it that—as much as I was trying to portray a political collective. The play becomes a cipher for other kinds of operations, for working together, with the same kinds of dynamics and class differentials, internal antagonisms, dramas, falling in love, all these things.
OW: And—on the theme of generations—each character is also constantly confronting their own past, their ghosts and the ghosts of their ancestors. You can almost see each character’s ghosts kind of pulling them back all the time. What does that theme of haunting mean for you?
IH: There’s a book by the sociologist Avery Gordon called Ghostly Matters in which she says that the presence of a ghost produces a “something-to-be-done,” like the ghost of Hamlet’s father who is there telling Hamlet to avenge him.
An example that Gordon uses is the ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved whose presence tells us that the past remains to be reckoned with, the project of freedom is incomplete. That’s something you can map onto the inheritance of oppression, so the ghost represents previous generations, a continuity of history that exceeds the span of a single life.
I also like to flip that and to say that we are the ghosts, we haunt them. When Sonia’s father says “zombie apocalypse” it means we, the Palestinians, haven’t left. You know, we’re still here. We’re not leaving. They want to repress that knowledge, to say they’re not there, but the repressed always returns. So you could also say that the act of haunting is itself an expression of struggle as well.
OW: And then what does that mean for political struggle? Because we’re always pushing forward into the future, trying to reach an ending that’s never there.
IH: Yeah, you have to kind of hold both in your head, because there has to be forward propulsion, you know. Optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect. So in one sense liberation is a receding horizon, but there are points where you know, liberation happens, like Algeria was liberated.
There are particular horizons that you will reach over time, but that time span might involve several generations. I think that it’s not the end of the story. It’s never the end of the story.
Enter Ghost, by Isabella Hammad, is available now from Grove Atlantic.