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Hisham Matar: My desk is my country

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hisham Matar on negotiating the tricky space between fiction and non-fiction, writing about his missing father, and how he sees himself more as his mother's son

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hisham Matar. Photograph: Diana Matar
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hisham Matar. Photograph: Diana Matar

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In 2012, Hisham Matar, who had been in exile for 33 years, returned to Libya to chronicle what might have happened to his missing father. Jaballa Matar, Hisham’s father, had been kidnapped by Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces in 1990 and imprisoned in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. After 1996, when 1,279 prisoners were gunned down in the prison, there was no reliable information on his whereabouts. Matar still does not know whether to count his father as one of the victims. The Return: Fathers, Sons And The Land In Between, Matar’s third book, is a memoir which recounts this “reckless” journey back to Libya, and explores what it means to live without a father to rage at, to always be in a condition of waiting, to struggle against guilt, uncertainty and impermanence. It was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and, a few weeks ago, the Rathbones Folio Prize.

I spoke with Matar at his writing studio in West London over baklava and tea. Edited excerpts from the interview:

All your books have to do with a missing father. Your first two books were fiction, but ‘The Return’ is non-fiction. Why this shift?

With the novels, I think I was doing what most of us do, which is we invent a world in order to think about something. I don’t mean thinking in the sense of a thesis, but the thinking you only get in art, a sort of meditation, a particular register of attention. I get a lot of energy from making things up, which is why I feel I’m a novelist. But writing this book I started to think, yes, I’m a novelist, but maybe at a deeper level, what I’m really enthusiastic about is prose. I am terribly interested in the paragraph: the paragraph as an object, the construction and the possibilities of what a paragraph can do. What makes a paragraph is still an open question to me.

Was there a moment when you decided to write it?

You know that word transformative? When people say they’ve had a transformative experience, it used to irritate me. It still does on some level, because I don’t understand what it’s supposed to mean, but I understood what it might mean when I made this trip to Libya. When I came back, I stopped writing for three months. I thought maybe I’ve come to the end of my writing life. I took the notebooks I’d kept with me in Libya and went to visit a friend in a remote part of the Piedmont in northern Italy. I opened the books one afternoon and I had this instinct to read them as though they belonged to another man. I thought, what if I take just the first two lines, which you know are just declarative—where I am, what date it is—and then, if this were a work of the imagination, what would be the third line and fourth line. Sometimes, when you write a few lines, even if they’re clumsy, you can feel a kind of weight and resistance, as if, if you were to push against it, it would push back. There’s substance there. So I continued, and that was as a piece for The New Yorker, but halfway through I could tell, it’s just like digging a well. There’s more, much more in there.

In the Country of Men.
In the Country of Men.

For some writers, the lines between fiction and non-fiction get very blurry. How do you negotiate this tricky area of truth?

This is a book of non-fiction, which also very importantly concerns other people. I use other people’s testimonies. I alight on historical events that have affected other people, so there’s a responsibility. It was also a moment where I could attend to the array of things that have had a strong impact on me. I haven’t been able to think about them in this way before because with everything in life, one thing is pressing on you at a time and always seems more significant than others. But with this fate—where you can’t go back to your country, your father has disappeared, members of your family are imprisoned, and other things that I don’t put in the book, friends of mine that have been killed—the cumulative effect of all this is that you’re somehow being overwhelmed, you’re drowning.

Implicit in every act of oppression, even the private ones, is to retard the imagination, to narrow the scope of your curiosities. So there’s always been this struggle of how do you look at a painting when all of this is going on? How do you give time to a book? If you’re like me and you’re interested in these things but have also experienced this other stuff, then the book becomes a space for consciousness, for all those things to come to the surface and be attended to with equal weight. That is the deeper truth to did this happen or didn’t this happen.

All your books link thematically with the figure of the absent father. Is there a sense with this book that you’ve said everything you had to say about the subject?

The reasons I’ve written these three books is because these experiences, this family, this country, this father, have initiated me into ideas and emotions and psychological states, knowledge about some aspect of what it might be like to be human. My enthusiasm for them is not because I think they’re interesting but because they’ve connected me to this subterranean network that connects us all. In some ways, they are books about what it means to be a son, what it is to have a father. Will I return to this? I don’t know. I know the book I’m writing now doesn’t seem to be about this, but I also know as a reader, that writers have such a powerful interest in a particular set of things. Those things metamorphose from book to book, but somehow a shadow of them must remain. I suspect, but I don’t know.

In a recent essay for ‘London Review Of Books’, you wrote about how the connection between politics and literature isn’t straightforward. Could you talk about how you keep your writing space sacred?

The space where writing happens is a unique space that’s hard to define and when you’re kicked out of it because you’re travelling or distracted, it seems so elusive and hard to defend, because you yourself doubt whether it existed. But when you have it, it feels oddly robust and eternal. It’s the freest space, and it’s defined by an absence of intention, so everything that’s political work—campaigning, or doing your duty as a citizen—is filled with intention, but writing, to me, doesn’t benefit from intention. Jorge Luis Borges has this wonderful thing where he says, you don’t write the books you want to write, you write the books that you can write. So, to me, it always feels like a space of service, where you’re making yourself as available as possible for a thing that has no guarantees. It’s an act of devotion.

Does it feel like you’re mainly in time when you’re writing, that you are there and nowhere else?

Absolutely. That’s not to say that it’s proof it’s worthwhile or that the work is any good. When it’s going well, you do’re in time. I’m pausing, because I’m feeling the guilt of someone who has nothing to complain about. Work agrees with me. Everything about it. I think your book is your fate, but also, once the book is done, it’s also your fate, because it informs the conversation around it.

With this one, I was worried. I’m a private person and I don’t talk about these things. A lot of my close friends didn’t know most of this stuff, so it was strange to write about it in a very open way, and I felt very exposed. Then the book took on momentum and I just followed it. Once it was finished, I had some concerns about the conversations it would evoke. One of them was that it would become a kind of licence to ask me very private questions, and that hasn’t happened. The book is about private things, but they speak about them in ways that are to do with what’s interesting about them, so that’s been a relief.

At 16, you went to boarding school in England and pretended to be the Christian son of an Egyptian mother and American father, using the pseudonym Bob. For someone who has shifted often, used different names and teaches a class about exile, do you arrive easily at the person you are, or do you get confused?

I’ve never thought of myself in terms of an identity. I’m always baffled when I encounter someone who gives the impression about being confident about a particular defined identity. What’s fascinating to me is how open everything is, or that’s how it feels; that we are all of these things and nothing at the same time. That was quite an extreme case (being Bob). The difficulties that came with that were very specific—not being able to be intimate with people because you feel like you’re lying, and writing in English, a language I didn’t grow up speaking. That discrepancy was a problem for me for a while, but with time it’s become less a problem and more something I find interesting.

I’m interested in the fact that I write in a language I wasn’t born into, but I don’t think of it in terms of identity. I’m not saying it’s wrong to think of it in terms of identity because I do think language is definitely not just a code. Language is a culture and a depth and a philosophy and an attitude, it’s also an invitation into certain histories. Naguib Mahfouz once told me when I was very young, in Egypt, that the language you write in is the river that you’re in. And that’s true.

Do you ever get a sense of that lost river of Arabic, or are you quite happy in the river of English?

I don’t know if I feel happy. I feel engaged and enlivened, that’s where all my linguistic muscles and radars live. I’m an English language writer, but even that is a product of something bigger than you. There’s a lot that’s been going on in the Arabic language, to do with a particular set of events and history that has put it in a very difficult place, and a lot of people like me were educated outside of it, not for any other reason, but to get a better education. I think about these things, but not necessarily in terms of identity. There are certain moments when I feel I’m in my place and I’m with my people, and my people aren’t defined by race or religion or nationality. They’re interested in a certain way of approaching the world, the life of the mind, in valuing the things that I value. And when I feel really out of place, and this happens often, is situations where everything that I’m not interested in is suddenly the most important thing.

This happens often?

It does, and I want to continue to cultivate its occurrence because you don’t want to be in a bubble. There are a lot of people I love I have little in common with, or even politics, but I adore them, so….

There’s a touching moment in your book when you give a reading in Tripoli, and a man stands up afterwards and honours your mother. So much of what you write is about the father-son dynamic. Can you talk about the importance of women in your life?

I say in the book that my mother is the truly radical presence in my life, in the true meaning of that word, meaning root. There’s a lot of things I’m not good at, but one thing I’m good at comes directly from my mother, which is that I really do believe that life is for living. Because of what’s happened to my father and how it’s affected me and my work, most people think of me as my father’s son. And I am my father’s son, but I’m much more my mother’s son. I was brought up by my mother and aunts and girl cousins.

In Libya as a boy, you’re always with women until a certain age when you’re deemed, ah, okay, when we took her to the baths last time he was staring too much. (laughs). At that moment you’re handed over to the men. I remember that moment. It was a catastrophe because it seemed obvious that the source of vitality in Libyan society was with women. They’re the ones that had the best stories, that were doing things. Men just sat around and talked and complained. So I suppose that coloured my sensibilities strongly, all the way to this trip, which I make with my mother and wife, the woman who brought me into the world, and the woman beside whom I’ve become a man.

It’s very revealing, what other people tell us about our parents.

I feel that way about my mother. She’s just as mysterious to me as my father, and that mystery and curiosity sits side by side with your feeling of wanting to drop them, the feeling that you can’t bear them. It’s very difficult to bear your parents, I find. You want to release yourself from them, yet they’re also... (breaks off). What to do?

You’ve had many interruptions in your life. Does writing somehow help bring it all together, offer a kind of continuity?

I haven’t thought about it that way. It’s certainly a place, not just an activity. It’s also certain that when I don’t go there for a period of time, the days seem pointless somehow. So writing does provide a centre for me. Sometimes people say, where do you belong, where is home? For me, home is very specific things. There’s a room where Diana (Matar’s wife) and I live, which is probably my favourite room in the world. It’s not an extraordinary room, but that to me is the centre of the world. And these trees (he points out of the window), I’ve seen them change over the years, and my desk—I don’t mean it in a national sense, but it’s my country.

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