Language Is a Living Substance: An Interview with Abdelmajid Haouasse

Abdelmajid Haouasse’s transportive short story “A Hot Day” is a highlight of Issue 21‘s portfolio of fiction from Morocco. An award-winning scenographer, director, cinematographer, and author of short fiction, Haouasse is interviewed by The Common interns Sofia Belimova, Olive Amdur, Adaku Nwokiwu, and Eliza Brewer, with the assistance of Nashwa Gowanlock, who translated the interview as well as the original story. Here, Haouasse discusses his story’s unique narration, the translation process, and drawing inspiration from the Moroccan city of Asilah. This is the second of two interviews conducted by the summer interns with Issue 21 contributors; the first is with Latifa Baqa.

 

Headshot of Abdelmajid Haouasse, a middle aged North African man wearing glasses and a red polo shirt


TC interns (TC): What inspired “A Hot Day?” Can you describe your process of writing and revising it?

Abdelmajid Haouasse (AH): “A Hot Day” is a story inspired by the everyday life of certain people who feel, as they get older, that their dreams cannot be realized. And as time goes by, those dreams succumb to the mechanisms of time, which slows down the process of the realization of these dreams while speeding along to fulfill its own, harsher, reality. This reality, which takes the shape of crushed dreams and broken-down bodies, is the destiny of those who are marginalized, and stands in contrast with the spontaneous, careless nature of children—like those in this story. The children’s recklessness brings to the fore the fragility of the protagonist through a dynamic of contrasts that reveal the character’s inner conflicts.

As for the process of writing, there is a natural rhythm imposed by the narration which sometimes disrupts the plot’s linearity. At times I chose to interweave simultaneous events through synchronized storytelling. I wanted to use language as a repository of sounds that have their own poetry, melody, pace, and internal rhythm

TC: Your work is incredibly vivid and immersive. How do you construct a reality for your readers? How similar is this reality to your own lived experiences?

AH: What we imagine is real, or what people experience in their daily life, is merely a set of fragmented moments in time. If this reality seems comparable, it’s not the case when it comes to people’s individual preoccupations. Our preoccupations differ and intersect. Two people having coffee together will rarely be thinking about the same things even if they appear in perfect harmony; a third person shows up and the situation becomes more complicated.

And if things appear this way in reality, then what determines a story’s construction is not the sequence of events that make up the narrative plot. What governs the story is the logic of play in forming a scene and then cutting it for the sake of another scene that takes place simultaneously. The goal is to break the linearity, create coincidences, and capture moments of tension between different worlds and characters. This relies on structure, or editing by disassembling and reassembling disparate parts.

Because in order to perform this “synthesis,” as Eugenio Barba suggests, we must understand how to look at reality by distinguishing it from the sum of its parts. We need to know how to isolate these parts and then subject them once again to a process of integration. The concept of “editing” does not just include the structure of words, images, and relationships; it also includes editing of rhythm. And that, in my opinion, is what gradually lures readers into the world of the story as though they are one of its characters.

As for the similarity between the story and my personal experience, the narrative was inspired by preoccupations that have accompanied me since childhood. It’s based on the ambiguity of everything that is yet to come, and the pervasive anxiety that stems from the fear of the future. What is truly frightening is the feeling of failure. I try to give my characters my challenges, like cracks in their memory, and objects related to childhood—like the bullet, the grave, the bicycle, and the rubber tire in “A Hot Day.”

TC: In your story, the beach serves as a space of narrative convergence for different characters and perspectives, and is contrasted throughout with the “lazy,” hazy city. Often, it is urban spaces that are held as points of togetherness and interaction; what does the beach in your story allow in the lives of these characters that the city does not? What power does it hold?

AH: The world of “A Hot Day” was created from the Moroccan city of Asilah, a small, coastal city that is lively in the summer. In the off-season, the pace changes dramatically. The only possibility of liveliness is from the young children when they emerge from school. Those who don’t like the overcrowding of Asilah’s small beaches usually head out to the beaches further from the city. Rumailat beach, where part of the story takes place, is seven kilometers away. At the time of writing, it was still a pristine, almost deserted beach, without a paved road to the city.

As in cinema, when a filming location is selected, I felt this was a suitable setting for a crime scene. This is assuming we agree with the narrator that the children killed the father by burying him alive in the sand. Asilah appears, from a certain angle on the beach, as a remote city on the horizon. It is this distance away from the urban city that makes it possible to enclose it and imagine the ensuing events taking place there, before the solitary act of writing begins. 

The power of the sea is in the astonishment it creates in each moment. It is the limitless limit and often serves as a catalyst for contradictions between serenity and a wicked roar. It is the soft layer of danger.

TC: Throughout the piece, you move between third and first person: that of the father, the children, and the first person character who voices the “I.” What did writing these different positions in the same scene open up in the construction of the story? Did these different views of the same moment impact the way you wrote about time and place here? Did they make anything possible in the story that you don’t think could have been communicated otherwise?

AH: The narrator’s use of the “I” is intended to involve him in the game so that he can become a player who secretly witnesses the events and follows the characters. But the narrator also collides with the characters in a way that makes him feel awkward. This is clear when he follows the children running towards the beach, and then at one point decides to race them on his bike, even though the competition isn’t on equal footing.

In my opinion, this is what makes the writing process enjoyable and dynamic—the narrator making contact with his characters, the manipulation of time and place creating a boundary between the imagination and reality, and between what is comprehended mentally and visually. It is a process of assembling and stitching elements that form the fabric and spine of the story, binding elements that are part of the mise-en-scene that the text submits to. At the same time, the text is only presented to the reader as material for play.

TC: Your story makes effective use of simile: the father was “like a shadow without a body,” life was “like an ambush, prepared in advance,” the children’s voices are “like cartoon characters.” The metaphors extend the story beyond the confines of its world, bringing in external images, characters, and philosophical ideas. How did you come up with these comparisons? How do you think about the use of metaphor and simile in your writing?

AH: Similes and metaphors stem from an awareness that the role of language in short stories is not only to communicate information but to intensify it and create a semantic charge. The power of the story is not in its narrative, but in the way it is formulated and presented. Eloquent use of language is the aspiration of every writer. This is only accomplished when care is taken to maintain language as a living and breathing substance.

In an era when language almost lost its fluidity and became wooden, writers of the diaspora reflected an awareness stemming from the power and strength of language. They softened its joints and opened up its pores.

Language is a living substance that can always reveal more than it says. In the short story, in my opinion, verbosity and tautology are intolerable. The shorter the length of the text, the greater the need to intensify metaphors and imagery. Similes and metaphors are only binding tools for a text in which the story is supporting some sort of poetic eruption, whose impact will continue to reverberate in the reader’s conscience. While some metaphors could potentially ruin the writing if not woven into the text effectively, metaphors are not used for the sake of eloquence and embellishment, but for their power to enrich the reader’s imagination, or at least stimulate it.

TC: Having your work translated requires a lot of trust. Can you talk about what it is like to have your stories translated and how you approach the translation process as a fiction writer?

AH: Translation is a betrayal of the original text, and it is an act of reading, interpretation, and transformation. Betrayal can be assumed as a positive offering, especially when the nature of the translation becomes clear based on the differences between the translated text and the original text. Transformations can occur, and one has to consider how this relates to the artistic impact it has from within a specific time, culture and reading.

It could be seen as similar to a playwright who turns up at the theatre to find out what has been done with his script. Perhaps it is pleasing to discover how the text changes when looked at in another language, or with an eye that may see what its writer did not see. If we consider it from the perspective of Barthes or Derrida, then the translated text becomes an original text from the point of view of its reader.

However, I’m not a prolific short story writer, and to date, I’ve only had two short stories translated: The White Nights” (into French), from my first collection of the same title, and A Hot Day,” from my second collection, Skies, which you have translated beautifully in English.

TC: Was there a major or decisive choice (or series of choices) you made along the way that significantly altered the story?

AH: When I wrote “A Hot Day,” my writing style relied on multiple composition strategies, the core being the choice of realistic and rich grounds to feed the story. I wanted to nurture the story’s development within an experimental form that didn’t rely on traditional linearity. The main gamble was the solidity of the internal narrative structure. I spent a month in the city of Asilah, traveling and carrying the story’s characters and potential plots with me. After that, I began to write in one long breath, away from the city or the places where the events originated. I didn’t make any changes unless it related to some of the structure of sentences. Now, I look at writing in a different way, which doesn’t require taking such a deep breath.

TC: Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

AH: My advice is to feed yourself by reading novels, short stories, poetry, and vignettes. Explore the whole library of literature from as many different cultures as possible, without adopting a single model. Travel and discover multiple lands and cultures, even if it’s only locally. Go to the theatre, watch cinema, and visit art exhibitions. Then stick to what is current and close without gambling on tales and imaginary characters.

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

AH: The only thing I’m focusing on right now is continuing with the dramaturgy for the performances I direct for the stage, as part of the Aphrodite Theatre troupe, which marks its thirtieth anniversary this year.

The dramaturgies that I produce are writings that not only celebrate literature since the theatre is an art independent of literature. Much of it relies on factual testimonies and archives and invests in audio-visual multimedia to feed particularly poetic themes. But the horizon remains open to the movement between the arts according to circumstance and need.

When I get tired of the effort that is being exerted in the theatre, given that it is an exhausting collective artform, I devote myself to drawing and painting. But in most cases, I expect to write short stories well into old age. Who knows?

 

Abdelmajid Haouasse was born in 1964 in the Moroccan city of Taza. He is a professor of scenography at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art and Cultural Animation in Rabat. For several years, he worked with the Theatre of the Sun, producing a number of scenographies before become involved with Today’s Theatre. In 1999, he established the Aphrodite Theatre group, where he accomplished a number of scenographic works before he turned his hands to directing. The year 2001 marked a breakthrough in Haouasse’s directing endeavours, as he devoted himself to completing a set of works, opening the way to a new type of theatrical writing in which he moved away from long poetic texts (Rita’s Long Winter) and the testimonies of detainees (Myrrh Trees) through the experience of “Fuel On Scene” which gave voice to female victims of violence and schizophrenia, when he moved from writing with text to writing with media. Haouasse also worked as a cinematographer in a number of cinematic works in addition to his artistic and technical management for a number of theatre festivals, most notably the Tangier Mashhadia Festival. Haouasse has won a number of prizes, including the Al-Fareed award for scenography in 1994 and the award for best scenography at the National Festival of Theatre in 1995, 2000, 2013 and 2014, and then the award for best director at the National Festival of Theatre in the year 2007. In addition to his theatrical works, Haouasse has published two short story collections, White Nights and Skies.

Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor and translator of Arabic literature. She is the translator of the collaborative novel, Shatila Stories, published by Peirene Press, and co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, published by Rider Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


Photo courtesy of Abdelmajid Haouasse.

Language Is a Living Substance: An Interview with Abdelmajid Haouasse

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