I Will Be in the Place You Least Expect to Find Me: 10 Questions with Latifa Baqa

Latifa Baqa’s gripping stream of consciousness short story “Adam’s Apple” is a highlight of Issue 21’s portfolio of fiction from Morocco. A feminist, human rights activist, and award-winning author, Baqa is interviewed by The Common interns Sofia Belimova, Olive Amdur, Adaku Nwokiwu, and Eliza Brewer. They discuss editing, the devil in the details, and countering the traditional expectation of the male gaze. Nariman Youssef translated the interview, as well as the original story. This is the first of two interviews conducted by the summer interns with Issue 21 contributors; the second will be with Abdelmajid Haouasse.

Headshot of a middle aged Moroccan woman with glasses standing in front of a pond on a sunny day

TC interns (TC): What inspired “Adam’s Apple?” Can you describe your process of writing and revising it?

Latifa Baqa (LB): The idea behind ​​“Adam’s Apple,” like pretty much all ideas you may find in any of my fictional texts, began with a sentence. Meaning that one sentence preceded the idea, in a way not unlike how one note might resonate in a musician’s head before the rest of the tune. This is how it often happens: before I begin writing, a lone sentence rises up in my thoughts, for no obvious reason. I remember how this one stuck in my head for days: “We shouldn’t lay bare what we carry within us more than once.” The rest of the story followed from that sentence, beginning with a minor character who barely features in the narrative: Alzamourie, the neighborhood’s baker, who was a real person in the working class neighborhood where I was born and raised. To be more precise, one element that started making its way into the story was Alzamourie’s teeth. I just could never forget his teeth. It seems almost absurd, but I find more reassurance in the foggy arbitrariness of memory than in the clarity of conventional reality.

The process of revision, or editing, falls under “craft.” That’s when I move from the sphere of music and first notes to the sphere of the traditional craftsperson who has to master the skills of polishing and pruning, in order to find and highlight the angles of beauty in a particular object. The revision stage is the stage of crafting the text from the raw material of the earlier stages when it was just a soul’s exhalation put into words. The text in its raw state has no literary identity. It needs the storyteller’s chisel to make it into a story, a poem, or a novel. Editing is what takes me longest. The text in its first primitive form is often done in one long breath. I often write until I’m almost out of breath. Writing has never been easy or comfortable for me. It is, however, a vital necessity that I realized early on I would have to resort to every time I feel the memories jostling in my throat. 

TC: Your work is highly observant and masters minute detail. Has careful observation always informed your writing? How does detail add to your work?

LB: I love the phrase “the devil is in the details.” The devil is the picture of doubt and rebellion. The details are what’s needed to save a text from certitude. I guess I also write to feed a deep-seated desire in me to turn the tables. Details break the narrative down and rebuild it. They afford opportunities to trace an idea throughout the text. When I was a child, on those distant mornings in our old house, I used to listen to my mother and our neighbor chat. I was fascinated, not so much by the content of the news or stories they shared—that didn’t seem the primary element in the conversation—but by the way they told it. The pleasure of the telling lies in the details. I learned that pleasure from my mother, and later developed it to work on paper.

TC: There are moments throughout your short story where the narrator moves into conversation with the reader, addressing us with a self-conscious and honest awareness that the story is being documented, written, and made public. While writing, how did you balance these moments of recognition with the moments where you stay with the narrator’s internal dialogue? How did you decide when to pull the reader’s presence into the story? 

LB: I have always thought that writing in general, and writing stories in particular, requires the courage to move the narrative line from the vertical to the horizontal. Working on a text includes paying attention to both form and content. The creative journey is all-encompassing. When the narrator looks out of the story’s window every now and then, it’s to deliver a personal message that, while it seems to break the narrative, actually holds it together. The narrator quickly returns to her main story—and finding the appropriate speed for that is essential—in time to save the thread that was created between her and the reader from breaking. It’s a delicate process that requires a close listening to the harmony of the words, images, and ideas. This kind of listening, with time and practice, helps us control the steering wheel of the story on the path that the narrative needs to follow. It can be a skewed game. Because the other player, the reader, is on guard against the tiniest narrative lapse. We can imagine this as a soccer game, where the narrator/player must remain focused at all times while inside the pitch. Do I intentionally pick the moments for the narrator to stick her head out of the window? I think I mostly follow my instincts, or the instincts of a chatty woman who flits between topics of conversation without breaking the flow, keeping the rope that holds her stories together, and the attention of her interlocutor taut.

TC: The story ends on an ambiguous note; you write in the final paragraph of its, “not having ended yet, or even begun.” Was there something liberating about leaving the story in this open-ended way? What made you decide to let her narrative leave us with questions? Does this, in your mind, have to do with the overarching search for freedom for the female voice and narrative power in the piece?

LB: Opening windows is the only choice when a place suffocates us. I have a lot of fun with storytelling and I enjoy it even more when I leave a door open behind me as I exit the room. I’ve always considered my true freedom to lie in writing. Writing is a solitude, and solitude is a disburdening. But when it’s time for others to enter the text, I find pleasure in watching them discover what I had been up to in my solitude. I return in “Adam’s Apple” to one of my first passion: writing from the depths of memory, the memory of childhood in particular. Alongside that, I also try to tackle a subject that some may consider taboo: women’s attraction to men. I have said before, in intimate women’s gatherings, that beauty is masculine. My girlfriends used to object. In this story, I wanted to say, hey men, you who inhabit alongside us this planet that is blue like an orange, to borrow from the French poet Paul Éluard, we lust after you too. Even if that is at odds with the cultural norms that you have seen fit to divide our roles by, leaving us with the role of the passive object and hogging that of the active subject. 

If I place some distance between myself and the story, I can see that its theme is at the heart of my vision of what constitutes women’s writing, which I want to view as a porthole through which some light, meant in particular for us women, can seep in. That small window that allows our gaze to express itself and assert its difference and uniqueness.

TC: The ending of your short story also seems to reflect on the incongruence between fiction and life: “It might have taken a different shape if its hero—the apple-and-necktie man—had not turned toward Alzamourie’s lookalike straight after looking at me. The rotten-toothed Alzamourie entered at the wrong moment. He intruded on the theater of events and snatched for himself an unearned part in the story.” Can you elaborate on this dynamic?

LB: It is a kind of creative play that means to say that things could be other than your expectation and yet remain coherent. What appeals to me in writing is the same thing that appeals to a child playing hide and seek (“ghommeida” as we call it in Morocco or “estoghmaya” as Eastern Arabs call it): I will be in the place you least expect to find me. The more success I have in surprising you, the greater my pleasure. I think that writing is also about tampering with the fundamental standards that are tacitly agreed upon between writer and reader. So that you don’t simply wait to be told a dull, derivative story, as old as time. Instead, we play and have fun together. There is something that remains from childhood in the act of writing. We may get old, but as long as we can preserve the spark of childhood within us, the ability to be surprised by the world, we can keep storytelling fresh and reading an act of pleasure.

TC: Did you always have a clear vision for what this story would be? Or, were there different versions, different choices you tried out before reaching the final form?

LB: I’m one of those writers who arrive to the story with empty pockets. I sit in front of the computer with nothing but my first sentence. The central idea for a story is yet to be found in the writing. I know it would be lying somewhere on the side of the road along the way. I remember a line I had copied into my notebook when I was still in school, from the Russian poet Yevtushenko: “In the beginning there were no roads. It was people walking in a certain direction that made the road.” Words and sentences create the private path of the story. 

TC: Do you have any advice for emerging writers? 

LB: The experience of writing is a private one, and our relationship with what we write is an intimate relationship that involves narcissism and isolation (which is why I think the hardest thing a writer can do is collaborative writing). I don’t feel that I can allow myself to advise anyone about writing. Something as intimate as that, it either happens or doesn’t happen. It’s no one else’s business. The one thing I would suggest to someone wanting to enter the turbulent world of writing is to read, watch movies, listen to music, live through personal experiences with all the vigor they afford, be free and make as many mistakes as they can. I might add to that keeping a diary, as an exercise that helps us to own our language and develop the craft needed for polishing and pruning a text before offering it to others. Language is an essential ingredient, but I don’t think it’s enough to give us a real writer. A writer should have a need to write, meaning that they should inhabit the danger zone and have no way out but to write.

TC: Are you working on any new writing at the moment? What’s on the horizon?

LB: I have been working on my first novel for a few years now, at a very slow pace. For the past few months, I have also been working on something I entered into as a new challenge: a script for a TV series of thirty episodes. Right now, I’m finding this experience immensely fulfilling creatively. I’m rediscovering through it our beautiful spoken Moroccan and the power of traditional language to accommodate even the most progressive ideas. I hope that my experience will encourage other Moroccan writers to enter this field, which has so far been mostly left to those who are far from the literary sphere. 

 

Latifa Baqa was born in Salé, Morocco. She has published three collections of short stories: What Do We Do?, Since That Life, and Virginia Woolf’s Room. Many of her stories have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Turkish. She was awarded the Moroccan Writers’ Union award for young writers in 1992. She is always a feminist and human rights activist.

Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born, London-based semi-freelance translator with an MA in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh. Nariman works between Arabic and English and part-time manages a translation team at the British Library. Literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, as well as contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, Banipal, and poetry anthologies Beirut 39 and The Hundred Years’ War.

I Will Be in the Place You Least Expect to Find Me: 10 Questions with Latifa Baqa

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