I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Writing from Palestine about trauma and the complacency of language.
In the opening half of Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (New Directions) an Israeli Defense Force commander and his platoon capture and brutalize a young Bedouin woman in the Negev desert. The year is 1949. With a cool omniscience and forensic detail, Shibli shows us a methodical perpetrator oblivious to suffering, even to his own. Halfway through, the novel shifts into the present, to the restless mind of the Palestinian woman who investigates the crime. Shibli’s precise language and formal innovation create a palimpsest—the real hovers (almost imperceptibly) above the imagined, just as the past shadows and irradiates the present.
Adania lives in Palestine, where she was born, and in Germany where I met her briefly at the Berlin Literaturhaus. A year later, as I read the stammering amateur detective in her third novel, I was transfixed. Minor Detail is grounded in the shifting borders of past and present-day Palestine/Israel. Yet by channeling its preoccupations with disturbed land, persecution, and injustice through two distinctive sensibilities, in showing the absurdity of life under occupation, the novel is transcendent. We began emailing shortly after Adania and her son emerged from pandemic lockdown. It was summer in Berlin and they were planning to travel to Palestine until the virus numbers soared. They ended up in Corfu. Our interview, in English, spans three countries—Greece, Germany, and Australia, where I live.
Mireille JuchauYou worked on Minor Detail for twelve years. Your starting point was thinking about language and form. Was the novel’s form and its contrasting point of view clear to you from the beginning?
Adania Shibli The novel started from this contemplative inquiry on how the complacency of language can inflict pain—and also how the complacency of language can deflect pain. These two base ideas were all that I started with, nothing else. Language then came, word by word, over those twelve years. The form and the content were revealed bit by bit. I was never on top of these words, but mainly tried to sit quietly every morning for them to emerge slowly. Sometimes they felt like flies, that if I made the slightest movement and frightened them, they would fly away. I would say the novel’s different parts dictated the process. Whenever I tried to control it, the effects were terrible parts that needed to be deleted. It is quite an inexplicable process and a fascinating one. I cannot articulate how it happened; how as the writer of the text, I could have such a minor role. It is sometimes frightening, because if I have no control of the process, things can be this or that. I would say chance plays a role and has more power during the writing than I do.
MJ You speak several languages but write in Arabic. For this novel you worked with translator Elisabeth Jaquette. What conversations did you have about language, since it was your starting point for the work?
AS I know Arabic, English, Hebrew, French, Korean, and German. I speak some better than the others, and sometimes one is weakened or strengthened by another. But yes, I only write fiction in Arabic because this language is a witch—an amazing, funny, crazy, generous, and forgiving witch. It has allowed me everything. It is the space of the most intimate freedom I have ever experienced in my life. The translation process was challenging. The text came with an added burden for the translator because the language had been formulated by a specific experience—in this case, the ways it was violated by colonization and oppression. In Arabic, this linguistic experience needed a lot of space and precision—attention to what is written and what is intentionally not written.
We spoke about a process of continuous exchange, but I don’t think Jaquette expected the extent to which this was the case. She did the best she could to work with that, and the editors also tried to address these multiple layers. I’m not fluent in any language in fact, all I know really is when a word should not be there. I may not know the correct word, and in Arabic it can take me days to find it. In English the right word is even more remote. But anyway, I don’t have to read any of my books, which is a relief. I only return to them to work with the translators, which still does not require really re-reading them. Once my engagement with any text as a writer finishes, and it’s finally published or appears in book form, I never return to it as a reader. I do not know why the idea of reading my own published texts repulses me, but I know that reading books written by others is a lifeline.
MJ Your distinctive style, the precision of the language and formal innovation move us into a dreamlike realm, yet the sensory details ground us. The novel’s parts are linked by recurring motifs: a howling dog, the scent of petrol, desert plants. At what point did this technique emerge in the writing?
ASI’ve always been fascinated by repetition and how repeated words can have totally different lives, just with a slight change in circumstances. I have been intrigued by this for a long time. For instance, when someone at the beginning of a relationship tells you that you are crazy, then does the same at the end of the relationship. I find this amusing.
MJ As if nothing has shifted in the intervening time! When your motifs reappear in the novel, they trail their original effects but have very different properties. What is traumatic in the first half, becomes part of the absurdity in the second. Do the themes of repetition and return have a special role with respect to the political reality depicted in Minor Detail?
AS I would not isolate it as political reality. Repeating the same narratives of pain ends up making listeners tired of hearing it, while this repetition means in fact the pain is continuing and thus augmenting.
There is a funny story that I suddenly remember, about repetition, that may not be related to what you are asking. In my early twenties I did a video workshop with elementary school girls in the old city of Jerusalem. The workshop was designed to have twelve to fifteen students, but around two applied. So, I tried to devise selection criteria. I asked them to write a one-page story that takes place on the path between one of the nearby old city gates and the school gate, in that morning.
More than 190 of the stories were about a girl going to school then coming across an old blind man, then helping him cross to the side of the street. Upon reading their stories, I thought they were copying each other, while relying on the most banal trope of themselves as the good person, doing something good in the world. I chose none of the girls who wrote this type of story, maybe only one, which was written in a slightly more precise way. Then one day as I was going to this school to give one of the workshops, I saw a cluster of the school girls, tens of them, who wore the stripy blue and white uniform from the same school, gathered around an old blind man, helping him to cross the street. This incident ignited my interest in repetition. It was may be one of my main lessons about literature and what can be perceived as real and unreal.
MJ So, the repetition of the ritual by ten girls takes it into another register? This reminds me of your contemporary protagonist who contends with competing realities. As she drives through Palestine/Israel to discover more about the crime, she consults several maps. One, produced by the Israeli authorities, shows no evidence of the Palestinian villages that appear on the maps produced before 1948. Did thinking about erasure and assimilation become part of the writing process?
AS Linguistic erasure on maps is where you first experience the betrayal of language; the erasure of Palestine from the map continues today. Your linguistic consciousness from an early age is built on reading these omissions. This is something I think I’ve been concerned with since the first text I wrote.
MJ You say that being asked to address the question of Palestine is an “act of violence, an anthropological role,” that you reject. How do you maintain your artistic sovereignty if you are asked to be “representative”? Does this happen differently in Germany or Palestine?
AS I’ve never been asked to be representative of anything. People are smart, they can see that I might even be a bad representative of my own writing. How to say this without being rude? I really don’t care how people in Germany or elsewhere think about Palestine. In fact, to “think about” Palestine is already a position of privilege that I would not like to engage with. My concern with Palestine is a personal one, not a literary one. It forms my literature; but my literature is never about Palestine. It is rather within and from Palestine as a condition of injustice; of the normalization of pain and degradation. It reveals the limits of language. Whoever is concerned with how humans are deprived of their humanity from the first day they are born, can certainly find ways to unravel this pain beyond forcing those suffering to convince them of how painful it really is. There are also people who see this and do not want to know. Slavery, colonization, the Holocaust, to name a few … these are acts that happened over a prolonged period of time and people managed to turn a blind eye.
My quest in the case of Palestine is not to be concerned with anyone who cares about positioning, but those who are suffering. We only have each other in such cases, as the privileged will never risk their privilege towards others if they can manage it. I’m not being cruel I hope, but realistic. Even goats know when another goat is taken to slaughter, humans can’t manage that? And if they don’t, then I have the right to trust only goats and speak only with goats about it all, Palestine and everything else.
MJ While reading your work, including your two previous novels, We Are All Equally Far from Love (2004) and Touch (2002), I was reminded of something the artist Mona Hatoum said, “I’m never trying to make a direct political statement. There are issues in my head, but they’re in the background; they’re not foregrounded in the work, and they’re not specific to my own history … I’m thinking about form most of all. I am focusing on the materials, on the aesthetic.”
AS It’s fascinating to read Hatoum’s method, because this is my growing anguish on the literary level; the form. I remember reading experimental poetry in class at age ten. I was so fascinated by this type of poetry, where suddenly language can liberate itself from its functionality and instrumentality. Over the past few years, I moved from genuinely not caring about the narrative form, which probably shows in my writing from early on, to being deeply disgusted by the narrative form. I say disgusted because I have this very physical reaction to linear structure. It is within such structures that I feel a grand narrative can exist, like a dictatorship—solid, like the worst tyrant. And I try to use it in cases where tyranny is at stake, so the form dictates the content. Linear narrative structure is a dictator. But unlike Mona, I’m not striving for abstraction, but precision—where the words that want to be in the text can find their place in it.
MJ That’s intriguing. I think it’s the first time I’ve heard a writer articulate that relationship between conventional narrative and tyranny. It reminds me of Imre Kertész, who intended Fateless to be an “atonal” novel because tonality suggested to him a defined, or mutually agreed upon morality. He wished “to write a novel in which there is no static morality, only original forms of experiencing.”
You designed Minor Detail with a structural border—dividing two parts. And other borders recur. Checkpoints through which the contemporary protagonist must pass to move around Palestine/Israel; the psychological and physical limits between the platoon commander and the Bedouin girl; the boundaries between what can be known and what can only be guessed about the atrocity. Were you consciously using borders to organize or generate the writing?
ASI’m fascinated by what borders try to prevent, and why. And sometimes by how their meaning and the perception of them shifts from one situation to another. It is quite entertaining sometimes to see that. For instance, in 2012 I wrote a short play called “A Wall for All.” This is about two lovers who have a fight during an art opening. We performed this live at an opening, without people realizing it was a play. But that play was to a large extent based on reports by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, justifying why walls and checkpoints are necessary in Palestine/Israel. I would say even the play is a plagiarized version of the ministry’s propaganda news releases. By changing only a few words, really just very few, and setting up the text as dialogue between two lovers, it became so familiar and acceptable. So, I’m also interested in how borders shift meaning once they are transferred into other territories. Not many people know about this, and when I told a poet friend who was initially very happy at the end of the play, who said how wonderful it was; he was stunned into silence, as if suddenly he realized he was admiring propaganda. What is the line between state propaganda and a lover who wants to end a relationship?
MJ This reminds me of how Minor Detail so deftly shows the relationship between political acts and personal life. Was the play staged in Germany? I imagine it would have had a particular impact there, where the intrusion of state violence into private life hasn’t been forgotten?
AS Yes, in Berlin, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The play was staged only once, so its impact was rather momentary. People just stood and watched, even though it was not clear at the beginning that this was a staged situation, a reaction which is somehow telling. Now, this indifference is unfortunately common to many societies.
MJ There’s an abrupt break in your novel, from a cool third person narration to a compellingly overheated tone in the second half. This shift feels like a refusal to ignore trauma. Your young protagonist seems like a truth-teller, but because of her relentless self-questioning coupled with her solitude, the facts torment her. Is this something you were conscious of in the writing?
AS I don’t relay the role of the protagonist as a truth-teller. She only tries to reach the truth, to see if it really exists. And if she does speak the truth, then this would be interesting because she is short-sighted. She also stutters. Can truth be reached that way? How would the truth sound if it was told in a broken and shattered language? The only truth that matters or mattered to the novel, is that violence on a literary level can be and is felt on a linguistic level. Stuttering is not a metaphor here, but a collective experience that infiltrates language. I’m always intrigued when signs of nonfluency or disfluency show, when someone swallows before or after a word, cannot pronounce a word. It always points to a vulnerability in a certain situation, and I’m like a private detective set to uncover why these words emerged or did not emerge.
Minor Detail is available for purchase here.
Mireille Juchau is a writer and critic. Her third novel is The World Without Us (Bloomsbury 2016). Recent work has appeared in newyorker.com, The Monthly, LA Review of Books and Best Australian Essays. She is an Honorary Affiliate at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee