A week or so ago, I was sitting on a couch in Abu Dhabi, interviewing the Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees.
We spoke for several hours: about our shared love of Egypt, about the difference between scriptwriting vs. novel-writing, about his three-year-old granddaughter, about the nature of memory, about the current state of literature in Syria. Relatively early in the interview, during a part where my recorder was switched on, we began to talk about Syria. Suddenly, he stopped.
No, no, no, Sirees told me. He had answered enough questions about politics while he was at Brown University (2012-2013). He and I were supposed to talk about literature.
Later that evening, I brought up this issue — politics vs. literature — while we were out with a group of journalists. He shrugged. He empathized with the people in those Northeastern US audiences, he said. How could they be expected to know what’s going on so far away, in Syria? And yet they wanted to know.
Indeed, people want to know. Yesterday, I was editing a post for my blog about a PEN World Voices event in NYC. In it, contributor Suneela Mubayi noted: “The Q&A was brief due to time constraints, and was devoted more to socio-political issues around the ‘conflict’ and the situation of the Palestinians than it was to literary issues.” Here, again, it is hard to blame the audiences. The title of the PEN event, “All That’s Left to You: Palestinian Writers in Conversation,” invites a political reading.
This is not necessarily bad. Ultimately, Sirees seemed relieved to be able to speak about Syria. Although he might tire of repeated questions about the country’s future, talking has been a matter of urgency. But other authors — Egyptian novelist and poet Youssef Rakha, for instance — have been annoyed to see their book events turned into seminars on contemporary politics.
Of course, (nearly) all literary events have their annoying aspects: While perhaps no one comes to a Jeffrey Eugenides event to find out his views about “Obamacare,” surely he gets plenty of the usual grandstanding non-questions. “I just want to say that….”
At the end of her piece, Mubayi suggested that, “a longer Q&A, or more time allotted to the panelists for reading their work” might stimulate more discussion of the literature-as-literature “as opposed to the politics of their existence and identity.” The latter, she said, “would have been more fruitful and thought-provoking for a panel in a literary festival.”
I feel for the audiences. We need authentic ways of feeling our way towards what is going on in Syria (and Palestine, and, and). These conflicts affect us all: more and less, sooner and later. But there are important reasons to treat authors as authors; important reasons not to treat their books as ethnographic maps of a real world. After all, if we seem them not as artists, but instead as informants, then it almost certainly changes how we can read their books, and what we can find there.