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Treading Water

The other day I heard an extraordinary interview with Libyan writer Hisham Matar. His first book, In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and he is an absorbingly poetic speaker. In the brief interview, Matar mentioned the kinds of things Libyan writers have for years been subjected to, including imprisonment and torture: in fact, shortly after Gaddaffi’s dictatorship began, the leader held a faux writers’ conference during which he rounded up hundreds of writers. Some of Matar’s friends were among them, and his father is among the “disappeared,” people about whom their families have no idea whether they are alive or dead. Matar’s own uncle was imprisoned for years. During the interview he said something that shook me profoundly. “Dictatorship demands a single narrative, but writers demand a multiplicity of narratives.” He added that writing in the face of such oppression was a political act. People may be imprisoned but their spirit, their energy, their memory, cannot be caged. Toward that end, Matar feels the need to write, just write, no matter what the circumstances.

After the events of September 11, 2001, I read various articles describing how writers, painters, poets, and other artists were having trouble working. They were wondering what exactly they could say that was meaningful, in light of what had happened and how the United States had so drastically changed. Comics, too, were wondering how long it would take the world to laugh again.

I was living in Paris at the time, my family and I had arrived for what would be a two-year stay only a month before. The tragedy struck us hard; we were so far away and there was a certain weird detachment, although we followed it on CNN with the country and the rest of the world. As a writer, I was in hiatus, trying to get my children enrolled and settled in school in a foreign country, learning to navigate the city myself, and taking French classes so that I could better communicate. While I understood the anguish of writers and artists I was too far removed from both my own work and from the immediacy of life in the States, New York specifically, to have it hit me like it did many others.

But a series of personal events in the past year, coupled with the increasing fragility of our world—the multitude of tragedies, man-made and natural, the all-consuming weirdness of our political system, our massive debt and the ways our politicians seem to want to solve it, have, for many many months, left me nearly paralyzed when it comes to writing. What can I offer that will make a difference? Do I write fiction or non-fiction? Who will it impact and what will it mean? I have more often than not thought that taking action of some sort was the only way to truly make an impact, but obligations remain: I simply cannot leave and do “good works” in another part of the country. My contributions, then, have, in a way, stayed static. I still sit on the board of an organization that helps abused and neglected children, I am still active in my synagogue; I continue to be a person who tries to be part of the solution as opposed to the problem. But my writing had slowed to a trickle.

Friends tell me not to beat myself up: that I have a lot on my plate. But that hasn’t prevented me writing before. I like to think I am larger than the effects of a second divorce, the death of my father, the estrangement of my sisters, health issues, the stress of preparing my eighteen year-old daughter to go to college, the nerve-wracking craziness of trying to sell a house in this market…..but apparently I haven’t quite been large enough.

But listening to Matar talk made me realize how self-absorbed a response mine has been. If he and his compatriots can keep creating then who am I to let events in my life, events in the world, stop me from being able to create? There are things I wish to say and I am going to continue to try and say them. Some of them concern my own history as a woman and where women stand in the world today. So I begin this blog with the intention of getting out of my rut, working on my new book A Change of Life: Confessions of a Middle-Aged Feminist and writing through one of my own multiple narratives.

3 thoughts on “Treading Water”

  1. the description of your reaction, “self-absorbed,” is interesting…mostly because it assumes that you can have control over it, that you might choose to behave in a different way.

    i’m not entirely sure that the reaction can be controlled, though obviously your blog will document your attempt at it.

    i’d like to say that i had full control over my reactions to events but that is obviously not the case.

  2. Thanks, Mark….. I just felt guilty about not writing when I heard Matar talk about how we must, no matter what. Things do get in the way and they paralyze us, or me, at least. But breaking out of that paralysis is absolutely necessary…

  3. Hi there, it was interesting to read what an impact the interview with Matar had on you and I wondered whether you might be interested in asking Hisham Matar himself a question about ‘In The Country of Men’? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything – doesn’t have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Hisham Matar himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club

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