By Mitali Chakravarty
Hisham Bustani, the editor of this year’s Best Asian Short Stories from Kitaab, is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments with the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post-colonial modernity in the Arab world. His work has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and it has been said that he “belongs to an angry new Arab generation. Indeed, he is at the forefront of this generation – combining an unbounded modernist literary sensibility with a vision for total change…. His anger extends to encompass everything, including literary conventions.”
Hisham’s fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, including The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. In 2013, the U.K.-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, and the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers for 2017. In this exclusive, he talks of what went into the selection of the stories and what makes him write.
You are author of five collections of short stories, poetry and hybrid forms. How many short story collections have you edited before? Were they in English or Arabic?
Hisham: I have a long list of editorial credits behind (and before) me. First of all, I am currently the Arabic Fiction Editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, responsible for curating an annual country- or theme-based portfolios of Arabic short stories in English translation. So far we two of those portfolios were published, one from Jordan (Issue 15, Spring 2018) and the other from Syria (Issue 17, Spring 2019). The forthcoming portfolio in Issue 19 (Spring 2020) will feature stories in translation from Sudan. These portfolios are simultaneously published in Arabic in the Egyptian literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab. So I’ve established alongside The Common’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker, and Akhbar al-Adab’s editor-in-chief Tariq al-Taher, a trans-Atlantic literary collaboration in that respect.
Before that I co-edited with Jennifer a special issue of The Common, entitled “Tajdeed” (Issue 11, Spring 2016), and dedicated entirely to new Arabic writing (as explained in my essay: “New” Arabic Writing: Cataclysm in Fast-Forward). The issue featured the work of 31 contributors from 15 Arab countries.
I was also the Arabic Fiction Editor for the Turkish-Arabic bilingual literary review Balkon, which published six issues in Turkey between January and December 2017. I also curated and edited portfolios for the renowned Beirut-based literary review Al-Adab (“The New Arabic Short Story”, Vol. 59, issue #7-8-9/2011, with fifteen authors from fourteen countries, representing new directions in contemporary Arabic short story writing; and “New Writing from Jordan: A Selection”, Vol. 58, issue #9-10/2010, featuring eleven new writers of prose and poetry from Jordan), and the Cairo-based Akhbar al-Adab (“New Jordanian Voices in Poetry and Prose”, issue 874, 2010).
So as you can see, I am no stranger to curating and editing literature, as I try my best to push forward fresh, creative, and sidelined voices from the Arab literary scene, and now: from Asia.
Do you write mainly in Arabic or English or are you bi-lingual?
I write short stories, poetry and experiment with forms in Arabic. This is the language I feel more relaxed and comfortable with, and in control of. Unlike other languages, I can “feel” Arabic, the hidden and subtle meanings of its words, the psychological weight of its phrases, its musicality and tempo, I know how to bend and reshape and rephrase its sentences, I know how to engage its nuances. Anyone can test this phenomenon, which I call “feeling the language”: If you use the harshest of swear words in another language, you’ll never feel the insult as delivered in your mother tongue. You’ll know it’s an insult, but you’ll never feel it in your gut. This intrinsic, organic relationship with language is absolutely necessary for writing, and writing literature specifically.
Having said that, I am answering your questions here directly in English. I can write essays, answer interviews, and deliver talks with English, but doing creative work is something else. It needs a deeper relationship with the language as an artistic tool, medium, and field.
What was your criterion in choosing the short stories for Kitaab’s collection?
I totally avoided cliché approaches and simplistic subjects. I also avoided what is prevalent today in mainstream publishing: character- or plot- driven narratives. I chose “experimental writing” as one of the themes of this anthology, and in “experimental” I meant devising new ways and approaches in writing a short story. This was one of the major decisive factors in choosing a story, and you can sense that in the four stories I chose to receive the Editor’s Award. Another factor was related to the other theme I chose for this anthology: celebrating the so many languages of Asia, and thus, celebrating translation since the anthology is published in English.
Unfortunately, I did not receive many translations, in the anthology there are 6 translated stories out of a total of 25 (24%), but what made up for this deficiency was that many of writers writing in English used Asian languages inside their texts, as a “normal” part of the writing. So, we ended up having Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, even Malaysian English, inside the texts, among other languages. One last consideration was geographical, Asia covers a huge expanse of land, peoples, and cultures, and an anthology claiming to be Asian, has to (somehow) live up, even partially, to that claim.
I am happy that the anthology contains contributions spanning from Palestine, and Lebanon in West Asia, to Japan in East Asia, passing through Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Philippines, Uzbekistan, India, Syria, China, Bangladesh, Singapore, Taiwan, among other countries. That said, stories had to cross the excellence mark to be included. I had to drop many stories which would have increased the geographical/regional diversity or the translated content; excellence and inventiveness therefore was the overarching basic principle.
Did the experience of editing these stories impact your artistic genius in any way? Did you enjoy the experience?
I think a fine literary writer, especially if he/she works on short stories or poetry, should necessarily acquire editorial skills. These literary forms are very fragile, they are based on brevity, condensation, multiple-layering, metaphor and symbolism. There is no room for mistakes and digressions, nor room for covering-up your faulty tracks, these forms don’t allow it, and that is why I consider them higher literary arts when compared to the novel. The novel is permissible to such “mistakes”, a novel can get by with a digression here or a lousy metaphor there, but a poem and short story doesn’t. Where you place a comma, how to formulate a sentence in a specific, deliberate way, how to remove unnecessary details or words, these are all “deliberate” skills that a poet and a short story writer should master. Therefore, editorial skills are extremely necessary for them, for me.
What is your own description of a good short story?
A piece of literary, artistic writing that dives through an event, transforming it into a multidimensional cosmos of potentialities and possibilities. In two words: it is a “plural text” as Roland Barthes defines the term in his book S/Z.
You are known to be a rebellious writer — one who channelises his anger into his creation. How do you do that? Does that mean your muse is only moved by anger? What makes you angry? Do you see anger as positive for your genius?
I agree that I am an angry writer, but I don’t channelise my anger in writing, otherwise I’ll stop being angry myself, and that is very destructive not only to my writing experience, but to the world and our planet in general. In our modern times, with capitalism’s insane drive for profit, the prevalent injustice, competitiveness, selfishness and ultra-consumerism, pushing the human species, all life, and the planet itself towards an ultimate extinction, you cannot be but angry. You’ll be fooling yourself if you’re not.
Anger is therefore an important literary driving force, inspiration, and artistic tool. It enables the writer to be observant, vigilant, critical, and unsatisfied with superficiality and face values. It enables the writer to engage with general issues on a personal basis, with a personal vision. Isn’t art the unique interaction between the unique individual perspective and individual expression, and the “outside” world? I’ve put the word outside between quotation marks because there is no outside world. The writer, like everybody else, is one with, and part of, the world, whether he/she likes it or not. Some choose to turn their backs. Some choose escapist routes. Some choose to join the mainstream and be part of the status quo. I choose literary confrontation as my artistic direction.
Do you enjoy writing? Why do you write?
I write for two distinct reasons: for exploring the potential of literature as an artistic field, trying to expand that field and generate new expressive / creative tools for that purpose and exploring subjects with those tools in an endeavor to generate new perceptions, new meanings, new questions, new dimensions, and new depths (I’ve tried to do this, for example, in my book The Perception of Meaning, published by Syracuse University Press in 2015). In addition to the necessary “editor” we talked about above, there is a “critic” who should always be active inside a writer. The critic should be able to visualize a philosophy of writing and explore the tools that are able to implement this philosophy, and finally, assess the success of the final piece. In a sentence: I write to satisfy my internal literary critic, and to explore the world in new ways as I deploy my artistic choices in literature.
What writers, artists or musicians have influenced your writing?
There are so, so many influences, the most major of which is life itself, what see and experience every day in my everyday life. Literary writing and the arts are a process of creating “new” fields from elements a writer takes in and digests and use to create totally new constructs. But on a more specific notions, I’ll list some of my artistic influences here: Haidar Haidar’s short stories, Megadeth’s music and heavy metal in general, Ahmad Taha’s and Ziad Anani’s poetry, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Jorge Luis Borges’ inventive short fictions, Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand stories, Pete Mondrian’s neoplasticism, Lydia Davis’ The Cows, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, not to mention the tremendous influence of quantum physics (and this is why I use the term “fields” to describes the space a piece of art wants to establish or create; it is as close to “wave function” as I can get without losing the connection with readers).
Your writing hovers on surrealism. Is it impacted by Salvador Dali or by any specific writer? Why were you moved by surrealism?
I didn’t choose the term “surrealism” to describe my work, critics did, but I don’t object to that description since I usually put the events I work on and the characters I deploy in illogical and bizarre situations and circumstances. Yes, surrealist painters like Salvador Dali, but especially René Magritte, are closer to what I’d like to term (especially for my writing) — a Meta-Realist Surrealism. Surrealism is being used in everyday life to describe non-realist or “completely imaginary” worlds or settings, but that takes away the revolutionary core of surrealism as an artistic movement that confronts the real world, and uses its elements (elements of reality) to question reality and perception and what people regard as the “stable and accepted reality”. This is why I’ve inserted the phrase “meta-realist” to stress the realist root of surrealism, and the “beyond” (deeper, critical, questioning, reconfiguring) approach of surrealism towards that reality.
Does living in Amman impact your work? Is it a city any different from any other? Has your work ever been impacted by any rulings or laws?
Amman is very present in my writing, especially its transformations and malformations, its radical change from a warmly-knit, familiar, calm “home” into a chaotic, poorly-maintained, cosmopolitanized, soulless pressure cooker. A lot of my stories, like “City Nightmares” (Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Spring Issue 2016) and “Skybar” (The Literary Review, Volume 57, Issue 3), or hybrid texts, like “Voices Within” (The Honest Ulsterman, October 2015) or “Quantum Leap” (Hotel, #4, Spring 2018), explore these issues of “urbanization” in a post-colonial context, and reflect my complicated love-hate relationship with Amman as a space of social-political, general-personal, upheaval and transformation. Love is mainly derived from my memories and experiences of growing up in Amman as a child and a teenager, from the fact that Amman is a space I know how to navigate and deal with; hate is mainly derived from its stagnation, authoritarianism, and pretentiousness.
I am a renegade at heart, and by practice. I abide to no restrictions and censorships. In a country like Jordan, and on the wider cultural and political scene of the Arab World, this gives me a lot of trouble and provide me with many enemies, but it also gives me my freedom, the most valuable thing I hold and preserve.
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