Since the Nakba, in 1948, millions of Palestinians have been compelled to exile. Palestinian literature is conditioned by the situation brought by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is no longer only the literature of those writing from inside (those in Israel and the Palestinian Territories) but also of those settled across the globe. Consequently, the themes of migration, displacement, exile, isolation, identity, loss, longing for the homeland, desperate waiting, injustice, oppression and hope are recurrent.
According to editor and literary critic Tahseen Yaqeen, a new generation of Palestinian young authors emerged in the 1990s. These writers were trying to forge their own way, trying to find “an individual creative voice giving authenticity to their feelings, thoughts, and attitudes towards life, the homeland, woman and other contemporary issues.” Yaqeen goes on to say, that most of these authors are still “grappling with rebellion, imitation, experimentation, and attempts to prove themselves at all cost.”
Adania Shibli, a well-known Palestinian writer was born in Palestine in 1974. She currently lives between Jerusalem, Ramallah and London. This young author has twice been awarded the Young Writer’s Award by the A.M. Qattan Foundation for her novels Masaas (Touch, 2002) and Kullluna Ba’ed Bethat al Miqdar ‘an al Hub (We are all Equally Far from Love, 2004) both published by Lebanese publisher al-Adab. Shibli’s short stories and essays have also been published in various literary journals and magazines, and spoke to us about the new generation of Palestinian writers.
How would you describe contemporary Palestinian literature?
Reading contemporary Arabic literature, I notice a very particular treatment and portrayal of space and the movement of characters. It is suffocating; so from several texts written by contemporary Palestinian writers that I have read, I would say that it is a literature of suffocation and a last breath that never ends.
Do you feel that you represent the new generation of Palestinian writers?
No. In fact, I can hardly represent myself and more than often fail to do so. In a conversation I had with poet Mourid Barghouthi, the phrase ‘new generation of Palestinian writers’ came up, and Mourid got quite furious upon hearing it. His fury shed light on the repeated usage of this phrase, an almost parroted usage, without any actual substance. Indeed, as Mourid argued, where would we draw the line separating the new generation from the old, and how long does a generation remain ‘old’?
However, I do think there are new conditions constantly emerging in Palestine and for Palestinians, and these should be held accountable for the shift in content and literary styles. The most obvious example of this is the works of Mahmoud Darwish. When reading his poems and texts from the 1970s and 1980s, and then those from the late 1990s until his death two years ago, one can identify a shift in his style of writing. If following the criteria for a strict categorizing of a new versus an old generation of Palestinian writers, Darwish’s later works would be filed under the new generation without question.
Palestinian literature has been somewhat conditioned to be a tool for activism and resistance. Do you think that this has hindered the emergence of a more “creative” literature?
I definitely do not think so, not unless readers have done so without consulting the writers first. Palestinian writers, as any other writers, contemplate life. And, as Palestinians they are permitted to contemplate life in Palestine and elements conditioned by it, more than other issues. Now, whether they are creative or not, that depends on how sincere and truthful they are in their act of contemplation. If readers want to use these texts as a tool for activism and resistance, I’m more than happy, and it’s definitely better than using weapons or parroting government propaganda.
Can you see a difference between Palestinian writers writing from inside and those in exile?
Not really, because I have not been looking for such a difference. Also, I do not think the term ‘exile’ is an accurate one for describing the life experiences of Palestinian writers living elsewhere. Many of these are actually living between Palestine and somewhere else, or they are visiting and staying in Palestine for long periods of time, as in my case.
The word ‘exile’ implies a clear break from Palestine, whereas in reality, Palestinians — be they writers or non-writers — maintain a sort of constant presence both in Palestine and outside. They might be working in Palestine or going back there for other reasons, or just maintaining this virtual connection to the country: the way people on the same floor of an office communicate with each other. What I mean is, it’s quite hard to speak about exile in the sense that we did before the present Information Age. We cannot draw a clear line or a dichotomy between the homeland and exile.
The politically engaged poet Mahmoud Darwish is a sacred literary figure to Palestinian writers, and a figure of resistance. What does this mean to you, to write in the wake of his works?
It is rather shameful to say, but I cannot say that I’ve properly read Darwish’s works. So I can say more about what it means to be a writer in the wake of him as a person. Darwish is a writer who was very generous towards many young Palestinian writers, including myself, without us having to be his admirers or followers. He was among the very first to push me on to the path of writing, and he used to joke with me saying: “I’ve read your works and you have not read mine”, referring to my contributions to the magazine al-Karmel that he established and was the editor in chief of. Maybe in a way I’m still refraining from reading his works, just to keep this joke true.
Written by Elizabeth Grech, posted with the courtesy of Babelmed.