Interview with Houcine El Wad Conducted by Kamel Riahi and Translated by Ali Znaidi.
Houcine El Wad: The novel mutinied against me.
Interviewed by Kamel Riahi.
Tunisian and Arab universities knew Houcine El Wad as a researcher and academic in the main Arab prose and poetic experiences and an author of many books in those fields until his novel The City’s Scents came out in 2010 which won the Tunisian literary Prize of the Golden Comar and then his novel His Excellency Mr. the Minister (2011) which was shortlisted in The Arabic Booker.
Narration dominated the author of Al Moutanabbi and the Aesthetic Experience of Arabs to forcibly cast him out from his favourite field – that is of literary criticism and academic researches and studies – to the world of the novel and to compel him to publish his two novels as he says.
The Tunisian novelist and academic perceives that narrative creation necessitates a great deal of precision and auto-discipline, whereas many creative writings suffer from nonsense and gratuitous prattle.
Aljazeera.net met Houcine El Wad and spoke with him about his fictional and academic experience and his selection among the Arabic Booker shortlist.
After The Golden Comar for the Tunisian novel Arabic crowning came with reaching the shortlist of The Arabic Booker with His Excellency Mr. the Minister but you seemed, as usual, not too much interested contrary to the rest of Arab novelists and you were not primarily interested in publishing both novels. Is this true? And is indifference the path towards crowning?
I have been outside Tunisia when I knew that The City’s Scents won The Golden Comar. I had no idea that it was primarily nominated. As for The Booker, the editor told me that he would nominate His Excellency Mr. the Minister. Of course, this does not mean indifference or unconcern, but academic writing is different from creative writing.
For instance, in the first kind I was concerned about including an addition to any book I publish. Addition is the criterion. And any research in which I did not reach an addition I do not publish it. As for creative writing, I compare the done with the expected and I oftentimes feel that the text does not reach the expected level.
As far as the publication of the two novels was concerned, the first one was forcibly grabbed from me. I was enjoying reading it on my computer and looking at it for longer time. There is no secret telling you that I was somehow sorry when it was published because that novel really mutinied against me and whenever I began altering some paragraphs or expressions before publishing it I was unable to do so.
As for the second novel, I published it as a gratitude to the revolution because the latter personally did me a favour. And I tell you that I did not look at the first nor the second novel after publishing them.
Why did you always postpone publishing your creation? Were you afraid about the image of the academic; the man of science and the disciplined being from the image of the unbridled creator? Or were you afraid about the regime’s assault against which your novel His Excellency Mr. the Minister was a satire?
It was true that we (the editor and the director of the series) thought a lot of the reactions of the authority towards the first novel. That’s why it was showed to some trustful readers to take their opinions in this regard, but it leaked until it became circulated through photocopying.
Nevertheless, creative writing itself also necessitates a great deal of precision and intellectual engineering, especially as regards to the economics of the artistic text. Don’t you see that nine tenths of our creative writings has a great deal of nonsense and gratuitous prattle?
On another hand, there is no doubt that you know that many great academics wrote creative writings. Some of them admitted the difficulty of artistic writing. Novel is a free genre and freedom does not mean to be on the loose. On the contrary, it is auto-discipline at its utmost.
According to what his academic researches connote Houcine El Wad seems more preoccupied with poetry. But you put a dumper on the horizon of the expectation of the Arab creative scene with writing novels. When did your interest in narration start? And were your readings to Abul Ala Al-Ma’arri a starting point?
My preoccupation with old Arabic poetry particularly came after writing about old prose. But I did not stop teaching old and modern prose. And my preoccupation with poetry started when I discovered – which surprised me – that the predecessors had a unique marvellous critical experience with it. I tried to unearth all that in all the studies I published. This experience does not still get its share of discovery and paths towards it are not paved. And there are many difficulties and pain in looking at it without colourful lenses.
Narration dominated me. Perhaps this was due to being vexed by the mediocrity of the bulk I have read or perhaps due to the ferocity of anger for the culture to which I belong. I sometimes find myself writing due to a lavish love for a reality that is lavish with harming as it is replete with mediocrity, vulgarity, impudence, and ugliness.
The narrator in The City’s Scents declared that the text has a continuation. Is His Excellency Mr. the Minister a sequel to that work or is it the rest of the “scents” in other drawers?
The rest of the scents does exist. I do not know what made me postpone its publication. There is something that I do not know preventing me. Denouncing, divulging, and condemning all what harms, damages, and jeopardises existence at all levels used to fall under the rubric of resistance to stir dormant emotions.
Now things have changed. For us, particularly, denouncing becomes a mobilization in order not those abhorred eras come again. Difference is clear between the two situations. What remains is reaching artistic clarity. As for His Excellency, it has no relation with The City’s Scents. I wrote it laughing out from much stupidity.
Your style in the second novel is totally different from the first. In His Excellency language is pragmatic and not loaded with rhetoric, whereas in The Scents it sounds, and so does the style, strong, ancient, eloquent, and poetic. Which style is closer to you? And does the literary text impose its style and language or does the novelist want to carve a style for himself/herself?
I had my share in creating language in The City’s Scents. It is a language that surprised me and still surprises me with its strength and charm. However, language in His Excellency has another story. It is informative and tricky. If happened that other books of mine – that I still see them as unworthy to appear – came out you would see that their language is different. Language also uses the writer. It is a strange being that transcends us.
We find the “melancholy” that we read in your first novel in another style in the second. This is understood in reading the Tunisian reality before the revolution. How do you read the reality and the future of Tunisia today as a creator? And what are your fears about and your perceptions of what is happening and what will happen?
Our reality is tearful in reality and metaphorically. I permit myself and all those who are preoccupied with it and who are suffering from it to criticise it with the cruelty it deserves. But it hurts me a lot that others criticise it as a means to deride and belittle us and also perhaps as a glee at our misfortune so we cannot find anything to respond back. I was happy that some Arab peoples had the courage to take hold of their destiny. But joy did not consummate.
Arab peoples today are at a crossroads. Their chronic civilisational crisis becomes a matter of being. I hope that those peoples will succeed in building a world in which people are able to live a decent life that is rich with diversity in a durable world.
The dispute over the aunt between the two ministers in your novel—a dispute over the mother, seems now the origin of disputes between Tunisians, between the revolutionaries and the politicians over Tunisia. Abdullah al-Qasemi sees no good in the Arab revolutionary because he/she revolts against his/her father to bring one worser than him. How do you see the reality of the so-called “Arab Spring” today?
Though attractive, psychoanalytic reading does not convince me. And I see what was done of Arabic studies in it nonsensical and silly. As for Arab revolutions, what are they? How many revolutions have we got in our history? We can judge when we will have a stock of revolutions.
The most dangerous people for the revolutions are those who consider themselves intellectuals because there are distances between the perceptions they have and reality. Reality, far and away, had outstripped them. That’s why you see them having recourse to the dead of every type and category to direct them how to live. They are dream killers.
You were one of the founders of the avant-garde literary movement in Tunisia in the seventies. And now you appear as one of the most important creators in the Tunisian scene and between these two periods you were preoccupied with research. Today after your retirement will you devote your time to creation? And when will you release the new novel? Or will this abrupt success lead you to take your time more?
The story of the avant-garde movement in Tunisia is long and rich. In brief, it began in the seventies obstreperous, quarrelsome, recusant, mutinous, and pregnant with loads of hopes. But it was not long when it became a nail clipper or a mere luxurious façade of a shop full of all kinds of valueless haberdasheries when it was opposed by the ones – among them some of its advocates – who opposed it.
We had a rendez-vous with history (here the comparison must be taken with a pinch of salt), but we missed it. So it turned its face from us and went away. My fear is that we miss once again this second rendez-vous – the one we are witnessing today. Then, we will not find even time to regret it or shed tears.
As a reader, I like writers to respect me and not make light of me or waste my time because time is very precious. As a writer, I try to respect the readers because the book – and this saying is by Attawhidi or Jahiz – is what “when you look at it, it elongates your pleasure.” And the pinpointed pleasure is various.
As for retirement, I wish that everybody will not find himself/herself repeating with Al-Ma’arri his saying, “my action was lost in intentions like mountains in the dark.”
Originally appeared in aljazeera.net on 25/01/2013 by Kamel Riahi.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.