Interview with Tunisian Short Story Writer Houyem Ferchichi 05/06/2012 (10:42)
Interview with Tunisian writer Houyem Ferchichi conducted by Majid Elia-Editor in chief
(Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi)
Houyem Ferchichi is a Tunisian author and short story writer who has collaborated with literary journalism since 2003. She published her short stories in Arab and Tunisian literary magazines. Her short story collection The Scene and the Shadow was awarded the Tunisian CREDIF Prize. She was also awarded Almothaqaf Shield for Culture, Literature, and Arts. Houyem Ferchichi writes in different fields like literary criticism and conducts journalistic interviews. She has a particular fondness for short story writing, despite her working on novel. She is enriching her writings with different artistic mediums like poetry, drawing, and cinema. This is what made her creative texts a gauge of several critical readings which were published in Tunisia and in the Arab World. Despite the variety of the fields of her writings, Houyem does not stagnate herself in a definite writing milieu. She sees that the dynamism of writing lies in asking questions and showing serious critical attitudes, and that the tributaries of creation are not disconnected from its manifestations through the cultural scene in and with which she lives. That is what made most of the characters of her stories drawn from the Tunisian cultural reality, for instance, we find the artist, the thinker, the journalist, and the novelist.
Ishtar Journal: How was your beginning with the pen’s career?
Houyem Ferchichi: My beginning with the pen’s career was connected to my first childish revelations. It oscillated between writing poetic accidental thoughts and writing contemplative ones. But it was not long until I turned to prose. I gave my fictional characters my confusion, my existential questions, and my relation with the designs of places and the traces they had left in my memory. I was like someone who started writing to search for characters that belong to the environment which I had discovered and had made me live bewilderment after bewilderment. I used to probe the world of the character even though I used to give it some of my childish bewilderment. I often used the third singular pronoun (she/he) to write neutrally, but without the lack of subjectivity in my texts
Ishtar Journal: We have known that your short story collection The Scene and the Shadow was awarded the CREDIF Prize in Tunisia immediately after the revolution. Could you tell us about this collection?
Houyem Ferchichi: This collection includes stories which I published in different Tunisian and Arab magazines between 2003 and 2009. Through them I tried to reflect the Tunisian status quo in the last decade that preceded the revolution through aesthetic visions and different technical preoccupations. Through these stories the reader might discover a narrator who is not preoccupied with the classical women’s issues as much as she is preoccupied with finding that gate to reshape her stories after understanding that she will not tell and create to resist death but to discover herself and to be aware of it in society and the world. These stories were characterised by pungent criticism of the Tunisian status quo at all levels. “The Scene and the Shadow,” the title of the collection reflected the scene as it is and the threads that move it in the shadow. This was particularly revealed in the story “The Scene and the Shadow” in which I depicted the environment of a mountainous village that is characterised by the use of the simple people and the faking of truths. The village was affected by a fire that was about to devastate it. The female journalist was assigned to do an investigative report about this incident. The editor assigned her to conduct an interview with Sami Arrachid who will donate money for these aggrieved persons. When she moved there and wanted to hear the testimonies of the aggrieved persons, she was surprised that the testimonies had been ready. When she refused to take part in this connivance, she was surprised that the report had been published. This story shows corruption in journalism, corruption of institutions, and the situation of those who live like shadows in shadow zones that no one can see their sufferings inside the scene.
Ishtar Journal: How is the image of man in your stories?
Houyem Ferchichi: It is an image of a troubled man in a troubled status quo. It is a man who lives civilisational fragmentation and dissociation in his relation to the authority. For instance, in the story “Leaving the Circle” Ahd searched for beauty in the mountainous farm where she was surprised by the philosophy teacher killing birds and drawing woman in a wretched situation on his knapsack. So she decides to escape. As a writer, I depicted the character of the philosophy teacher who was living an intellectual crisis that led him to a state of absurdity and made him wander the mountainous bends in summer to catch birds and crows and throw them in dunghills. For instance, these are the questions that are tempting me: Why did I observe in mountainous villages a pretty good category of people and particularly educated ones who adopt materialistic philosophy, although the space, according to me, is a generator of beauty and certitude? What were the things to which I had not paid attention in my occasional visits? Were they the crows that attack the fledglings and remind them of absurd death? Was it the natural environment with curved protrusions? Why do some feel strange in the city, although it is an environment that opens onto spiritualities, art, and culture? What are the ugly scenes in the city which did not represent for me any psychological or spiritual estrangement? The man in my stories stands for fragmented masculinity.
Ishtar Journal: Do you think that the reader must deeply study your writings to grasp what is hidden between lines and the meanings of the subject-matter?
Houyem Ferchichi: As a writer I have my personal experience with natural and cultural beauty in all the environments in which I moved around, and about which I wrote through a string of thoughts that is interested in beauty and self. I reflected through my stories an existential confusion which I dip in the meanings of existence and discovery to give it a special taste that my fictional characters do not know. Thus, coming back to the stories of The Scene and the Shadow, showing the scenes of absurdity, and analysing the characters’ psychological complexes, I search for a closed psychological world in the seclusion of the place in the absence of meaning and the essence of things surrounding them as it was supposed that they interested themselves with the abstract mental images. The reader has his/her intellectual horizon and his/her taste faculties that make him/her read my texts in whatever way he/she finds suitable.
Ishtar Journal: Where is your pen in the midst of the revolutions in the Middle East in general?
Houyem Ferchichi: Arab revolutions have causes and consequences. Right now, we cannot write about the causes of the revolution because we wrote about it before its breakout. The mere writing about the revolution right now is riding it and drawing benefits from it. The current government is interested that creators write about the eras of Bourguiba’s regime and Ben Ali’s regime. It seems there are financial seductions, in this respect, to draw benefit from it, serve its political agenda, and gain financially from the accomplishments of the revolution. Writing about the revolution should take into account the current phase and the hard problems it is witnessing.
Ishtar Journal: Do you have writings about the Tunisian Revolution?
Houyem Ferchichi: My pen is currently busy with the current cultural and social issues in a country that is bleeding, and which is being scraped by the nails of terrorist Salafism. I am trying to warn about the dangers of the politicisaion of literature and art and the clear Qatari intervention through its support to documentary films that distort our political and cultural history again and through spreading prison literature by Aljazeera Documentary in order for those who call themselves militants to draw financial benefits through claiming financial compensation for years of militancy in a country witnessing a bleeding economic crisis. This is what is preoccupying me right now.
Ishtar Journal: Today after the change, what does green Tunisia mean for you?
Houyem Ferchichi: If you meant by ‘change’ the Tunisian Revolution, that is an important political and social transformation. But if you were speaking about the current situation it is a change to the worse, looseness, and a trundle backwards. Green Tunisia is my country that has known artistic, intellectual, and civilisational accretion. Tunisia is an open country which believes in civilisational dialogue and rejects fanaticism. We have the right to combat the illnesses that are attacking the body of the beautiful country. It is a body that is able to fight, to recover and to realize the goals of its revolution.
Isthtar Journal: What poets’ and writers’ pens did you emulate most?
Houyem Ferchichi: Despite my various readings, I used to have a fondness for reading the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Colin Wilson and the poetry books of Mahmoud Darwish. But I was not influenced by any author because I have my own fictional worlds, my artistic preoccupations, my memory that is rich in images and details, and my own vision of depicting reality. In my strory “A Journey of Quest of the Identity” I transmitted the space through my personal feeling of disgust whenever I passed by the Butchers’ Souk which I transmitted to the female protagonist of the story: she/the pregnant. I spoke about my memory when she moved to Bab Souika and I presented the images of the place and my personal memories with it. Thus, I spoke about the change that occurred in the place and its obliteration of the identity. The pregnant married/virgin woman was wondering about the just born baby after a state of dizziness and falling, “Will he/she be born distorted like the dream?” because the changes that occurred in the place obliterated its historical and civilisational identity, and even the Square of Bab Souika was distorted. Perhaps, in the innermost of each fictional character hidden thoughts wake up and some images that were stored in the memory appear. The story wove them together again in a new plot trying to analyse and deconstruct some images of society and to create the worlds of the self through creation and expressing the emotion that refuses a status quo loathed by the self. I am present in all my stories and others’ words go away when I am taken by the moment of writing. This reminds me of Flaubert speaking about the writer who must be “present in every place, but not seen in any place.”
Ishtar Journal: Are you content today with what you and your pen have given to culture?
Houyem Ferchichi: I am totally content with my pen’s performance. But I am not content with the Tunisian cultural status quo and the Tunisian cultural media since the free pen does not find the venue usually open to introduce its writings, and it is even often faced by pressure from influential sides whose interest does not coincide with accepting criticism especially in governmental newspapers that are still under the control of the successive governments that direct them as they want. Besides, the Ministry of Culture still suffers from the lack of neutral committees and still treats creators according to allegiances and planned programmes.
Ishtar Journal: Which friends of yours either writers or poets do you cherish and consider them really faithful friends?
Houyem Ferchichi: Every writer has friends who respect his/her creation and his critical visions and support him/her in media. And every writer has enemies who are mercenaries hired by persons or cultural gangs who draw financial benefits from the money allotted to culture and serve the ready-made political agendas. Anyway I have a large number of friends in Tunisia and I have an apprehension towards the mercenaries of culture. And what makes me feel good is that the list of my friends gets larger day after day.
Ishtar Journal: What is news with Houyem Ferchichi?
Houyem Ferchichi: Currently I have a short story collection – that extends beyond The Scene and the Shadow – through which the narrator/Ego is the locus of storytelling. Some examples are the story “The City’s Thresholds” which was published in the Tunisian magazine Al Hayat Aththaqafia (The Cultural Life), and the story “Returning Passageways” which was published in the Tunisian magazine Al Massar (The Path). This upcoming collection will express me, my memory, and the meaning of discovery that was pervading me to solve all ambiguities and will connect me to places I know well in Tunisia and abroad and to the city of Tunis which I lived its atmospheres and reacted with them and in which I have my grandfather’s house with its Ottomani style which bears a memory for knowledge and art. I have more than an image with every corner in the city. The city is the space in which I moved and which I discovered, lived with it, and loved it as well as the village with its outlets, thresholds, fields, water canals, and characters. Kind characters travel in these events and I open the doors of old houses leaving for the memory to invent characters made by my childish imagination that become a part of the village, searching for an old nostalgia or new dreams that might lead me to a new path. I was taken by a desire to write some passages which are related to the images of the memory which faded away. Thus maybe I could reflect the sensuous coexistence of the characters with habits decayed and hidden by time but they reflect what remained in my consciousness of these images of weddings in the village where I used to attend its celebrations and funeral ceremonies when I was a child.
Ishtar Journal: How do you see the situation of poetry in the Middle East today?
Houyem Ferchichi: Certainly there are new poetry experiences, a high ability of experimentation, and a variety of names from both genders. But in front of the creative thrust and the thrust of names it is impossible to determine which names are most able to establish themselves as distinctive marks in the sky of Arab poetry in general. The situation of poetry in the Middle East is not different from that of the Arab Maghreb. What we currently need is serious studies to read the modern poetic status quo and the most important active names in it. It should be known that Arab poetry meetings do not reflect the names that deserve to attend.
Ishtar Journal: Frankly, and please without compliment, how did you see the website of Ishtar Journal?
Houyem Ferchichi: If Ishtar stood for the Goddess of Love and Beauty, Ishtar Journal reflects through its pages true beauty through the published creative texts and through the intellectual issues that raises, which interest the Arab intellectual elites in general.
Ishtar Journal: On the occasion of this meeting what words will you offer to the readers of Ishtar?
Houyem Ferchichi: Thank you for Ishtar Journal. I was pleased with this invitation. I hope this interview will be a window for the readers of Ishtar to know some illuminations about Houyem Ferchichi, the Tunisian writer and the human being.
Originally appeared in ankawa.com 05/06/2012 by Majid Elia.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.