A writer is a writer: on understanding and humility

Today my university hosted a panel discussion with the six authors who were shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). I’ve long hungered for the kind of “visiting writer” experiences I used to enjoy in grad school at University of North Texas, and with this I had a chance to meet and listen to authors from traditions, cultures and a language completely outside my own, so of course I headed to campus on my day off and strode enthusiastically–and quite early–into the auditorium.

It turned out I’d passed the authors in the campus lobby on my way in, where they were meeting department and administrative officials, and with all the attention paid to hospitality and polite conversation here, they remained in the lobby for a while and the program started late. But once on stage, the set up looked comfortably familiar–the small couches, the little coffee tables with flowers and bottles of water, the podium at the side for all the requisite introductions–I could have been on any campus anywhere, and the familiarity of the scene was very relaxing. After a while, the visiting authors filed in ahead of their hosting professor and took their couches on the stage (as they were seated, from left to right):

Inaam Kachachi, nominated for her book The American Granddaughter
Habib Selmi, nominated for his book The Scents of Marie-Claire
Mohammad Al-Bisatie, nominated for his book Hunger
Yusuf Zaydan,* nominated for his book Beelzebub–WINNER
Ibrahim Nasrallah, nominated for his book Time of White Horses
Fawwaz Haddad, nominated for his book The Unfaithful Translator

What was different about this panel, however, was that the entire discussion was conducted in Arabic. The introductions, the requests for the students to shut off their cell phones (and the later demands for them to shush during the discussion), the initial remarks by each author, the Q&A that followed…. All of it was in Arabic, and though I am trying to pick up what little of the language I can manage, I only understood a single word: the oft-repeated shukran, “thank you.”

Still, sitting there for the hour offered me an interesting opportunity to observe things I sometimes miss at English-language panels, to notice the mannerisms of the authors and the tone of the discussion and the physical reactions to audience questions. What I discovered was that, just like the setting, everything felt familiar. I recognized the authors’ tones so immediately I could tell when they were speaking for each other and when they were speaking to the audience; I could guess in most cases when an author was speaking about craft in mechanical, skill-based terms and when an author was speaking about art in reverent, poetic terms; I could even predict in some instances when someone was telling a joke before the audience had a chance to laugh. It was amazing.

This became most evident during the Q&A, which consisted of only four questions because the questions and/or the answers were so lengthy. In some ways, it makes me wonder if such Q&A sessions, everywhere for all authors, are scripted, because while I couldn’t understand the topics or the responses, I recognized the pattern: The questions began with a somewhat long question from a junior faculty member, who seemed a bit nervous but was thrilled to be speaking to these authors. But after her question, the authors all glanced at each other and, without waiting for a mic, announced a short, one-word answer, and the audience in turn laughed. (Tommy Franklin, I’m thinking of you at every panel you’ve been on, man!) The second question, by a more senior faculty member who seemed to have something to prove, went on for a good three minutes, more a speech than a question, and when he finished his comments, the panel all nodded and several said “Shukran” respectfully, making me think the faculty member had either praised their work effusively or else offered a lengthy critical analysis of some sort to which no one knew what to say other than, “Um, thanks?” The third question, also from a faculty member, was apparently more thoughtful, because while it was also long, it elicited a very long response that took two (and a half) of the authors to answer. And, once they’d attempted to answer this question, the second guy–still with something to prove?–leaned forward in his chair and offered what sounded like a counterpoint of some sort, which in turn launched all six authors into a lively discussion of that point and, as though to defuse the conversation, Mohammad Al-Bisatie ended with a joke. Finally, a student bravely stood and asked a question, which I assume had something to do with the nature of writers or the art of writing, because Yusuf Zaydan took the mic, leaned forward toward the audience, and began a long answer that was very different in tone from any of the previous comments–from his eye contact, his hand gestures, and the tone of his voice, I knew he was attempting to teach and to help all the young writers in the room.

But more amazing for me, personally, was the moment I realized I’d been humbled by the entire experience. I couldn’t understand specifically what these authors were saying, and I cannot read their novels (translations are forthcoming and I look forward to reading them, because they sound fantastic), yet I recognized that I felt great respect for these authors simply because they are authors–not because they have published or because they were shortlisted for the Arab world’s equivalent of the Booker Prize, but because they are writers, people who do what I do and value it at least as much as I do. But I wondered…. What if I do read their work and I discover they are all terrible writers? Would my respect diminish? It shouldn’t. Yet I recall my recent, frequent rants about the low standards of popular fiction and my attacks on authors who do write work I don’t regard as of high quality, what I have called “sloppy” or even “inexcusable,” and I have to wonder, why did I denigrate those other, “lesser” authors?

Part of me wants to adhere to my own standards for fiction, even if those same standards often prevent me from sending out my own “subpar” writing, because I think art deserves to be as brilliant as it can be. But I realized today that my respect for writers stems primarily from the act, not the product, of writing. Take Stephenie Meyers Twilight series, for example, a collection of fiction I have not been shy about berating online. I have sometimes faulted Meyers herself for the poor quality of her novels, but while I stand by my assessment of the flaws in those books, I think now I have given Meyers an unfair shake. The work should have been better, and her editors and publishers should demand better writing, and the reading public should expect a higher standard, which doesn’t mean all fiction must be complex but which does mean all fiction should attempt beauty as well as entertainment–in other words, we should not be entertained by art that is less than beautiful (and if you know me, you know that for me, beauty includes the horrific more often than it includes the benign, so I’m not calling for roses and happy endings here). But good or bad, trained or untrained, a writer’s process is the same for all of us. Though her technique or her schedule or her imagination might be different from my own, I am sure Stephenie Meyers struggled with her stories just as I struggle with my own; I’m sure she both loves and loathes–remembers fondly and finds constant fault with–her writing just as I do my own. And a writer is a writer, whether a student, a teacher, a published author, a hack, a literary giant, a prize winner…. even in another language, they take delight in a world I recognize as my own, and I am proud to listen even when I don’t understand.

* My apologies to Yusuf Zaydan, but I could not find any sites regarding his work as an author; I was only able to find sites mentioning his work as director of the Museum of Manuscripts in Egypt’s Alexandria Library, but I am choosing here to focus on Mr. Yusuf’s work as a writer, so I have not linked to them.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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