Novel Talk, Live With the 'BPP' Book Club

It's the first on-air meeting of the BPP Book Club, featuring an on-air conversation with Hisham Matar, the author of In the Country of Men.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The inaugural choice for the Bryant Park Project's Book Club was "In the Country of Men" by Hisham Matar. It was one of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of the Year. It was also a nominee for the National Book Critics' Circle Awards. The author, Hisham Matar, grew up in Libya in the 1970s. It was a time when political dissent was, shall we say, not appreciated by the Gaddafi government.

If you disagreed, you could be detained and interrogated on television, if you were lucky. Matar's father, a diplomat, took Hisham and his family and left the country. His father still wrote and spoke about the Libyan government, and then one day, he disappeared. In Matar's debut novel, a young boy lives in Libya in the 1970s.

His father is taken, interrogated, and tortured for his beliefs, but eventually returned to his family in really bad shape. The young boy, the son, Suleiman, tries to live his nine-year-old life as normally as possible but his actions, reactions, and his mother's difficult love make for a poignant story of growing up. Hisham Matar joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us! We are very excited to have you on NPR!

Mr. HISHAM MATAR (Author, "In the Country of Men"): My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: We have so many readers who got so involved with your book, and they've been holding an online book club. So, a little later on, I want to pose some of the questions that they have for you. But let's get a little background first. Is it true this book began as a poem?

Mr. MATAR: Yes, it is. I wrote a scene that is now - I think it falls about 40 or 50 pages into the book, in which the protagonist, nine-year-old Suleiman, is picking mulberries in the garden. And I thought this was going to be a poem about a boy in the mythical garden picking fruit. Good subject, I thought, and I expected it to take three weeks, be about 12 or 13 lines, and that's it. But it took five years, and ended up being 70,000 words.

STEWART: What made it grow? What was it about the story or about the issues you wanted to cover that took this from a 13-line poem to your very first novel?

Mr. MATAR: Every time I speak about this subject I think of something that Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine novelist said - the meaning of what he said is that he's not sure whether the writer writes the book or whether the book writes the writer. And I think your intentions as a writer are always overwritten by the intentions of the work.

In this case, I very quickly realized that this was prose, and me trying to stuff it within a poetic form wasn't working either, because it wasn't a poem, or I wasn't a good enough poet. But I - and so I surrendered to the fact that it was prose, and then it became a scene, and then I became curious about this boy, about - in that scene, you know, there are several sort of strange, or what struck me as contradictory characteristics.

He seemed rather kind of reticent, and there's this kind of deep wire of grief that runs through his voice, and I didn't somehow equate that with a boy in the garden, you know? I wanted to find out more about him, and why he was who he was.

STEWART: That was one of the big issues that was discussed among our book club members is, who is Suleiman? And what motivates him to do some of the things he does? One woman named Kate wrote, "Suleiman's struggle to understand his place within a terrifying and unstable world is both heartbreaking and exasperating. It's a lesson for adults about how children perceive and absorb our world, and can be victimized or brutalized by it." Was Suleiman a vehicle for a greater lesson for you?

Mr. MATAR: This is all rather interesting to me, because when I'm writing, I'm not thinking about a character, or a scene, or even a word, as being a vehicle for some sort of way of how I see life, or how I see life ought to be. At least, I don't think of it that way, which is why sometimes I feel that a reader has access to the work in a way that a writer may never have.

STEWART: Well, there's another question I know that's been posed to you before, but it is from someone who very much enjoyed the book. Beth wrote to us, "I am curious as to how much of this novel is autobiographical. Are there events, portions of the storyline that you remember from your childhood, or you've taken from your childhood?"

Mr. MATAR: Not at all, actually, and times when I was really exasperated with the writing and found it, you know, keep hitting these dead ends, I thought, well, maybe it'll be easier if I can just fish out some scene from my life and try to slot it somewhere in order to move the narrative, or unblock it as it were. Every time I did that, it just didn't work. It's as if the character, or the characters were resistant. It's - I got the impression as if I sort of dressed them up in stiff clothes and threw them into a party that they didn't belong in.

One of the things that I feel toward this book is deep gratitude, because it taught me this lesson about inventing, that inventing is by far much more interesting and exciting than trying to document something that has happened in the past, or at least in my case it is. But that doesn't mean that one doesn't use fictitious narrative to try to meditate over subjects that I have an obsession with, you know? I don't think you can write, actually, without being obsessed about certain things.

STEWART: By reading your book, what can I tell that you're obsessed with?

Mr. MATAR: Well, I am obsessed with personal narrative, and with - and how that is fractured or amputated, in fact, by exile. Exile in a very literal sense, but also, you know, I think most of us actually go through this where there's chunks in our life where we can't return to. We think about them, we might reminisce or we might actually look at them rather negatively.

But the return is never possible. It's such a simple idea, actually. And so in my case, my story of return is different from Suleiman's, but through Suleiman's story I discovered that I'm meditating over it, you know? And here's this boy who exists in a place, he's telling this story retrospectively, so he's a young man living in Egypt, unable to return physically, and in some ways, emotionally, to a time that remains very haunting to him.

And somehow I kept asking myself as I was writing, what is Suleiman's motivation in telling us all of this? Why is he telling us this story? And at times, it felt like some kind of conjuring, as if he was sort of trying through words and through storytelling to conjure the past, to bring it alive in his exile.

STEWART: We're speaking with Hisham Matar, the author of "In the Country of Men," our selection for our book club this past month. Well, I've been fortunate enough to ask all the questions. I know that one of our members of our book club is actually on the line, and would love to ask you a question about your novel. Lindsey Hanson(ph) is joining us. Hi, Lindsey. Where are you calling from?

LINDSEY HANSON (Caller): From Baltimore, Maryland.

STEWART: From Baltimore, Maryland. Lindsey, meet Hisham.

LINDSEY: Hello. It's such a privilege to talk to you.

Mr. MATAR: Oh, thank you, thank you. That - thanks very much.

STEWART: Lindsey, you have a question. Go for it.

LINDSEY: OK, I had a question about the narrative. I felt as though the story was really building up to Suleiman's father meeting the same fate as Karim's. I thought that that would have been a really emotional climax, but what made you decide to have him eventually be let alone, at least, for a little while?

Mr. MATAR: It's a hard one because I don't mean to evade anything, but I generally don't feel that it was a decision in the sense that - you try different things and some of them ring true, and some of them don't, and this one rang true to me. And also, I was slightly, perhaps, now in hindsight, I was slightly weary of the two-dimensionality of the presentations of - representations of the resistance in Libya, that it's all good, or that it's all bad, or, you know. I wanted to try to show that these are people, and people crumble, and people are - actually very fine people are often corrupted by hardship.

There's a kind of romantic notion that we have that hardship, pain, sorrow turns the soul noble and refines it. And certainly in some cases it does that, and that's a marvelously moving thing to witness, but more times than not, I would wager, it actually corrupts, and it makes otherwise reasonable, generous, fine people do things that are abhorrent.

I remember someone once asking me, he said, you know, why did you create this protagonist that is an awful boy that betrays everyone? I thought to myself, actually ,the question isn't whether Suleiman betrays anyone. The question is that - who in the book doesn't betray something or someone, you know? And it's something to do with this extreme situation that they're under, that, you know, as much as I would like to think that become heroes, people actually just become - do what they have to do to survive.

LINDSEY: That was my favorite part of the novel. I really felt that that really made it realistic and very three-dimensional.

Mr. MATAR: Oh, thanks.

STEWART: Well, Lindsey Hanson, thank you so much for taking the time.

LINDSEY: Thank you very much.

Mr. MATAR: Yeah, nice to speak to you.

STEWART: And before we let you got, Hisham, I understand that you're working on your next novel?

Mr. MATAR: I am, yeah or - it's working on me!

STEWART: Did this one start as a poem as well?

Mr. MATAR: No, it didn't. I really don't know how to talk about what I'm writing about. It's the same with the first book. In fact, several of my friends were very surprised when they discovered that I had written a book, because I had kept it very close.

STEWART: Well, when you finish ,we do hope you'll come back and let us ask you many questions about that novel as well.

Mr. MATAR: Oh, I'd like that very much. Thank you.

STEWART: Hisham Matar, author of "In the Country of Men." Thank you very much.

Mr. MATAR: Thanks, thanks so much.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Such a privilege to be able to hear the author after you've read the book, and to be able to get his insights on what that process was like, and just take away from it.

STEWART: It was really interesting. I want to let people know that the book club is still available to you online. It can still go on, if you haven't finished the book, or maybe you just heard that interview and think wow, I really want to read this book. We are going to have another book announced tomorrow...

STEWART: Tomorrow!

STEWART: Which is kind of interesting, because we've got a couple of comments. One of our commenters online says he really wants the book not to be a downer, the next one. And our editor Sarah Goodyear responded, I promise we're going to mix things up here on the BPP Book Club. We certainly don't want your soul crushed.

MARTIN: No. We'll try to vary the mood, the vibe, a little bit. I don't know if it'll be so light, the next one. It will be interesting. It's going to be good. It'll be a little bit different, but you know, it's been so fun to read everyone's comments.

I've had a hard time joining real, actual book clubs, where you have to show up on a Thursday night and bring some kind of casserole. That's too much effort for me. But this has been - it's been really fun to see what you all have drawn out of this book. So, thanks for participating.

STEWART: And tomorrow will bring another day, another book.

MARTIN: Another book.

STEWART: Hey, thanks for joining us for this hour of the Bryant Park Project. You know you can always join us online anytime, all day, npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Alison Stewart.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. Join us again. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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