By Mary Dwyer
Isabella Hammad was born in London. She attended Oxford University for her undergraduate degree, and earned her MFA in Fiction at New York University, where she served as a Stein Fellow and the 2016-17 Axinn Foundation NYU Writer-in-Residence. She has been the recipient of a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard GSAS and the Harper Wood Creative Writing Studentship from Cambridge University. Her writing has been published in Conjunctions 66: Affinity (2016) and The Paris Review. She won the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and a 2019 O. Henry Prize. After publishing her first novel, The Parisian, in 2019, Hammad was named a ‘5 under 35’ Honoree by the National Book Foundation.
The Parisian follows the twenty-year journey of Midhat Kamal, a dreamer inclined toward philosophy and poetry, who struggles to define his identity under the physical and psychological siege of war and colonialism. The son of a Palestinian merchant, Midhat leaves for France to study medicine in 1915, in the midst of the first World War. There, he experiences the pain and pleasure of romantic love for the first time, and delights in the mystique of Parisian culture, even as he is aware of his “otherness” in the eyes of his French friends and hosts. Midhat returns to Palestine in 1919 to find his country engulfed in the intensifying fight for Arab liberation from British occupation and the growing threat of Zionism. Quickly dubbed “Al-Barisi” by the locals of Nablus, he continues to wrestle with questions of familial responsibility, duty to his homeland, and the desire for an unbounded life.
Hammad’s lushly descriptive prose immerses us in the lives of its many characters, weaving seamlessly in and out of their perspectives along the way. In unique ways for each, the personal and the political become inextricable—threaded to the backdrop of imperialism, military occupation, and patriarchy are themes of love, regret, identity, and the fight to remain whole in a fractured world. In this interview, I asked Isabella Hammad about these intricate webs, and literature’s role in illuminating their dark corners.
Mary Dwyer: Throughout my reading of the novel, I was reminded of W.E.B Dubois’ description of the African-American experience of “double- consciousness,” which he describes in The Souls of Black Folk as follows: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness…two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (2-3).
Without drawing direct comparisons between the experiences of African-American and Palestinian peoples, it struck me that a similar “two-ness” might be applied to Midhat’s experience of living as the token “Arab” in France, and then later as the “Parisian” back in Nablus. He is never “purely” one identity, and doesn’t feel that he fits completely in either place. In The Parisian, you veer incredibly closely to the points of view of both Palestinian characters and French characters, and you never simplify or flatten the inner lives of either. Could you speak about the complexities of such “double-consciousness” in your writing and in your characters? Do you think the pain and “dogged strength” of those who experience this “two-ness” can be a source of resistance against colonization and oppression?
Isabella Hammad: Yes I think I even used the phrase “double-consciousness” when I was planning the book –
Whether two-ness can be a source of resistance against oppression, though — I think I associate it more with survival, or at least that’s how I portrayed it in the case of Midhat. (There are other ways to talk about border thinking and resistance but I don’t think they really apply to my protagonist.) There’s another side to the coin, which is that for him shapeshifting is also about freedom. Eluding definitions. And maybe that exercise of freedom can be construed as a kind of resistance.
MD: When Midhat comes to terms with his thwarted relationship with Jeanette, he says, “We loved our fathers too much.” Throughout the book, various characters suffer the burden of either complete obedience to, or exile from, patriarchal structures–be it the biological family, the church, the school, or the state. On page 199, your narrator suggests that patriarchal family and class divisions were not inherent to Nablus, and that they came as a result of wealth through increased trade opportunities. Given the often reductive Western view that Muslim communities are inherently oppressive and patriarchal, could you speak to the relationship you see between colonization, capitalism, and the absorption of patriarchal values into Nabulsi culture?
IH: Well, I don’t think we can entirely blame the West for patriarchy. I think the point I was circling around there was that in pre-capitalist or agricultural societies women arguably had more freedom, and that as Nablus developed into more of a commercial centre, or a “landed port,” this affected the lives of women, who were no longer working outdoors but living in more closed environments.
MD: While we see outright violence and physical military occupation of Palestine in The Parisian, the novel is threaded consistently with a more insidious form of violence via surveillance: Dr. Molineau is secretly studying Midhat as a sort of specimen, and Father Antoine is writing down everything the Nabulsis tell him for his own anthropological study. Neither man sees that he is committing harm through an imbalanced power dynamic. Could you offer your thoughts on the psychological impact left on Palestinian people by these less visibile colonizing forces?
IH: Yes, you could argue that the activities of these two characters in some ways prefigure the colonial surveillance exercised by the Israeli state. In Antoine we see scholarly observation, involving what we might call “othering,” turning into surveillance, where such knowledge gets used for political ends. Palestinians today experience a general feeling of being surveilled and watched.
Invisibility is also a method of its control: the feeling that you’re being watched when you cannot see who is watching you. The impression that the one in power is all-seeing, all-knowing.
MD: After his education in Paris, Midhat is preoccupied more with intellectual, romantic, familial and aesthetic pursuits than his cousin Jamil, who dedicates himself entirely to a life of fighting the British and Zionist occupation; forgoing romantic love or a family life of his own. The tension between the two men had me thinking about the question of duty. There is a degree of privilege in being able to have one’s mind on personal pursuits, romance, and fulfillment, and these aspects of life are not afforded to people who live in occupied territories. Most of us who can read The Parisian could probably be said to possess a degree of this privilege (myself included, as a white woman living in the U.S.). As you were writing, did you find yourself thinking about the challenge of balancing one’s attention between the fight for liberation and the desire for a fulfilling personal life?
IH: I really don’t feel that personal pursuits, romance and fulfillment should be privileges. They are normal aspects of life that regardless of circumstance everyone should be allowed to experience, and it’s just another terrible facet of life under occupation that these normal things should be curtailed or made more difficult. But yes in the novel I was trying to explore the different pulls of a certain kind of individualism versus commitment to one’s community, or one’s cause. Being a lover in a time of war.
MD: When he is imprisoned, Hani reflects on the many microcosmic ways in which the British employ the strategy of “divide and conquer” to weaken the power and solidarity of the MENA region, and to compel Arab countries to concede to terms that are still violent and offensive. Choice becomes a cruel illusion as Hani and the other diplomats are put in the position of “making decisions” under sanctions, when they and their people are starving, poor, sick, and injured. We see imperial powers using the same kinds of strategies today, both in the MENA region and in South American countries. Do you think the literary community can play a role in making these divisive tactics more transparent in the future?
IH: If by literary community you mean novelists and poets, I think it’s important not to put too much pressure on their work to do the job of policy makers, lawyers, academics, and human rights activists.
MD: Your novel is rich with physical descriptions, and each of the characters feels so real, down to their smallest mannerisms. I read in an interview that you spoke to many Palestinian people about their own histories in addition to your scholarly research. How much was the world you were able to construct informed by these oral histories? Do you think that literature can act as an archive for the physical spaces and people lost in colonial destruction and occupation?
IH: The oral histories didn’t really inform the physical descriptions, but I guess spending time with a lot of people I didn’t know fed that part of me that is already an observer of humans, which is a quality a writer needs whether she writes characters physically, psychologically, behaviourally. The stories I was told by my interviewees rarely fed into the book directly—my grandmother’s stories are the exception. (She really was obsessed with funerals.) The question of the archive is particularly fraught in the Palestinian case—with archives destroyed by the Israelis, libraries confiscated in the Nakba, and so on—and there are now numerous initiatives trying to rectify and take account of this both inside and outside historic Palestine. In my own literary attempt,