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Interview with Th??r??se Soukar Chehade: Literature and uprising

The third in a series of short interviews with writers and translators discussing literature and the Arab Spring.

Th??r??se Soukar Chehade was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, and immigrated to the US in 1983. Her first novel, Loom, won the 2011 Arab American National Book Award. She lives in Massachusetts with her family and is at work on her second novel.

1. How do you think literature may or should respond to this spring’s events? What role (or roles) would you say literature has played, and how might those roles change?

Arab writers have been writing about issues of justice and social struggles for a long time at great personal risk. Despite the efforts to censor these writers, many have gone on to achieve artistic greatness. I believe they’ll continue to bear witness to the incredible courage of the protesters and play an active role in illuminating and steering history forward. There’s a lot more to do, whether people are attempting to institute needed reforms or are still engaged in violent struggle against their oppressors. Either way, vision and an honest, hard look at the challenges ahead are needed, and writers can provide both.

I’ve also been thinking, in a yet unformed and conflicted way which will seem to directly contradict what I have just finished stating above, about the mediating role of literature and whether the writer, who has removed herself from the street to write about it, has not in fact left it behind. And what’s really driving these thoughts is my own writing, and how much it is reliant on memory, because I have been gone from Lebanon for so many years and yet I continue to write about it. These are not new or original questions but they have been occupying my thoughts.

2. How have these events come to bear on your own writing, reading, and translating?

I started reading more blogs–and I’m grateful that there are so many excellent ones–for the latest updates on the political and literary scenes. I especially enjoyed reading the new poetry that came out of the protests and the old poems that found new resonance. These poems are a reminder that the people’s grievances have existed for a long time and that language was there all along to articulate them.

As a result of the uprisings I became interested in reading about revolutions. I’ve just started so I don’t have much to say yet, but I’m curious about what revolutions have accomplished throughout history and whether our modern understanding of the notion of revolution as a radically transformative agent stands true. The word has been getting a lot of mention lately, so it was bound to catch my attention. By temperament, I am uncomfortable with radicalism. In the beginning, I watched the uprisings with trepidation, fearful they might descend into violence and civil war. I grew up during the Lebanese civil war, so this explains my nervousness. But as I watched first the Tunisian then the Egyptian protests end successfully, I felt the same exuberance and hope as everyone else and I began to question my doubts. Was it possible that old corrupt regimes could be swept away and new promise and hope take their place simply because the people had willed it? Sadly, the peaceful transfer of power witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia has not been replicated elsewhere in the region. And while the Lebanese civil war should stand as a warning of what might happen when justified anger and frustration are not quelled with real reforms, people must march on to pursue their dreams and chart their own history.

I’m also reading about the Lebanese civil war of 1975. The novel I’m working on takes place in Beirut during the few weeks leading to the war, so this is partly for research. The Lebanese war is largely understood to have been a Muslim/Christian conflict, exacerbated by outside competing forces and the Palestinian presence on Lebanese soil. But tensions and civil unrest were brewing for many years before the war. People were always protesting in the capital and elsewhere. In fact, many believe that the fishermen’s protests in Sa??da, a coastal city in southern Lebanon, sparked the civil war. The fishermen were demonstrating against a company that was threatening their livelihood. In reading, I started wondering whether the war had not in a way been the fallout of a revolution gone terribly wrong because of the divisions among the Lebanese people. As a result of the protests I have become interested in civil resistance and the class struggles in Lebanese society, as well as the old debate between pacifism and violent protest. All these questions and doubts have found expression in the novel I’m working on in unexpected and surprising ways.

3. As a writer deeply engaged both with US literature and literature of the Middle East, what are your hopes now for these literatures and for their relationship?

My hope is that literature will help pull us out of the unfortunate current state of misunderstanding and misrepresentation we are in. But for this to happen there must be dialogue between the two literatures and I don’t see it happening on a grand scale. There’s growing interest in Arabic books in the US and high-quality translations in English but they have yet to reach a wide audience. More people in the Arab speaking world read Western literature than the other way around. I grew up reading the French classics, as did most everyone I knew. Colonial constructs continue to influence perceptions of the Middle East and keep its literary achievements largely neglected in the West. I hope that this changes. Translators and presses in the US and abroad are trying to bring attention to this literature and give it the place it deserves on the international stage. Their work is urgently needed to help fight racist and misguided caricatures of the Middle East. There’s something profoundly humanizing about literature. Books that touch us and expand our experience will change us in deep ways, and I hope the day will come soon when these books find a wider readership in the US.