Nothing parallels the effect left by the nightmarish atmospheres in the writings of Haidar Haidar. His novels and stories drill deep into our illusory serenity: a serenity we often use to trick ourselves into continuing our lives even when surrounded by death, destruction and injustice. Despite changing times, Haidar has not been defeated by censorship—either imposed by others or himself. He has kept a fierce, critical distance from all sides: the dictatorship of the ruling regime in his country of Syria; the dictatorship of public taste and “conventions”; the oppression of dogmatic ideology and the ruling party; the tyranny of power derived from religion. The literary “School of Haidar Haidar” is not dystopian but one that considers our reality to be far more miserable than any dystopia. Art is realized through the transformation of this reality from inside out, and by directly confronting decay with creative and avant-garde writing forms.
Haidar Haidar was born in the village of Hussein al-Baher on the Syrian coast. He taught Arabic in Annaba, Algeria, then settled in Beirut where he worked in publishing. At the start of the Lebanese civil war he joined the Palestinian resistance movement—when the resistance left Beirut in 1982, he moved to Cyprus to work as a Culture Editor of Al Mawqef al-Arabi (The Arab Stance) and Sawt al Bilad (The Voice of the Homeland). In 1985, Haidar Haidar returned to his hometown, and has remained there since. He has written seventeen books of fiction, short fiction, essay, and biography. His short story “The Silence of Fire” appears in Issue 17 of The Common.
Hisham Bustani, Arabic Fiction Editor of The Common, spoke with Haidar this year about nightmare visions, Palestinian resistance, the migrations that have carried Haidar “through deserts, cities and seas” back to childhood, and “boldness… always boldness.” This interview is translated from the Arabic by Raed Rafei.
I Am the Fire Starter: an Interview with Haidar Haidar
How long have you lived here: Technically in Plattsburgh itself, 1 year. In the surrounding area, 30 years.
Three words to describe the climate: Bitterly cold, snowy
Best time of year to visit? Unless you can handle extreme cold, winter and second winter (also known as spring) may not be the best choice. We often get down to -20 to -30 wind chills here. The best time to come is during the fall when the hills and mountains turn red and gold with the changing leaves.
Lindsay Wong’s debut memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, selected for the 2019 edition of Canada Reads (where it was defended by fashion personality Joe Zee), longlisted for the Leacock Medal for humor, and awarded the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize. Wong holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. Her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee Journal, No Tokens, Ricepaper, and The Fiddlehead, and she has earned residencies from The Studios of Key West, Caldera Arts, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House, to name a few.
In this interview, long-time friends Marni Berger and Lindsay Wong span Portland, Maine and Vancouver, British Columbia via the beauty of the internet (as they have for the better part of a decade). They cover topics from sleeping on a mattress beside your grandmother during Hurricane Sandy to visiting your mother’s haunted playground in Hong Kong; and from avoiding self-promotion on social media to coming of age while writing a memoir.
“I Hope I’m Not a Moth”: Lindsay Wong on Coming of Age Through Memoir
Ross Gay is the author of the poetry collections Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award and a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Against Which. In February he published his first book of prose, The Book of Delights. At the 2019 AWP Conference in Portland, OR, The Common’s editor in chief, Jennifer Acker, and Translations Editor, Curtis Bauer, sat down with Ross over lunch to talk about his latest book, which has led him to realize his life’s work.
JA: It seems to me that your two recent books, the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudeand The Book of Delights,werewritten in a similar vein and in a similar spirit, even just from the titles. One of the things they’re both doing is thematically trying to draw attention to joy and delight. I wonder if they were consciously part of the same project, different outlets for a similarimpulse?
Feroz Rather is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Florida State University. His work has been published in such journals as TheMillions, TheRumpus, and TheSoutheast Review, and his debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, was released by Harper Collins India this year. Through a series of interconnected stories, in which the same characters move in and out, the novel-in-stories describes the horrors of violence in Kashmir today. Read an excerpt online here.
Via email, Neha Kirpal spoke with Rather about Kashmir, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas (“Isn’t that an extraordinary achievement?”), survival, and Rather’s social role as a Kashmiri Muslim writer (“The only responsibility the writer has is to find his own true voice”).
Living Under Siege: An Interview with Feroz Rather
On the Friday of LitFest, Amherst College’s annual literary festival, The Common Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker sat down with Jennifer Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among other accolades, to talk about crime, place, and “timely” writing. This is an edited version of that live interview from March 1, 2019.
Resisting the Path of Least Resistance: An Interview with Jennifer Egan
When popular uprisings against the Baath regime started in Syria in 2011, Odai Al Zoubi was in the United Kingdom working on a PhD thesis in Philosophy. He quickly became involved in the revolution, writing political essays to defend the right of Syrians to self-determination. But his literary passion was fiction. Since 2011 he has published tens of stories and literary essays in journals such as aljumhuriya and Romman and most recently “Silence” in The Common’s forthcoming Issue 17. “Silence” marks Al Zoubi’s first appearance in English translation.
Al Zoubi’s short stories capture feelings of transience shared by many displaced Syrians. They are often set in spaces of transition: a balcony overlooking the sea in Beirut or a mall in Dubai. There, characters caught between a past in ruins and an uncertain future have fleeting conversations, sometimes about matters that might seem trivial considering the gravity of Syria’s situation. But from the attempt to resume the banality of everyday life springs a profound existential anxiety linked to irremediable loss and a striving for survival.
Silence in the Syrian Limbo: an interview with Odai Al Zoubi
Elias Farkouh’s short story “A Man I Don’t Know” was among the most viscerally engaging pieces in The Common’sIssue 15 portfolio of Arabic fiction from Jordan. A prize-winning writer and translator who has earned accolades for short fiction collections and novels, Farkouh is interviewed by The Common interns Whitney Bruno, Avery Farmer, and Isabel Meyers, who discuss fear, translation, and formal construction with Farkouh. This is the second of two interviews conducted by the summer interns; the first was with Haifa’ Abul-Nadi.
We Write Our Own Past: 10 Questions with Elias Farkouh