Friday, September 14, 2012

As part of the Live Discussion series hosted through the Writing University website, we featured writer Hisham Matar, one of this fall’s Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professors at the University of Iowa, in an on-line chat on Friday, Sept 21, 2012. See the full discussion below.


Name: Erin

Location: Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Do you write in multiple languages? If so, how do you choose which one to write in? By that I mean, do you write some subjects in one language and other subjects in another? Or do you reserve one language for more sensitive matters, for example?

Hisham Matar:

I write only in English. I used to, when I was a young boy, write in Arabic.


Name: Nora H.

Location: IA

Mr. Matar,

I was wondering where you write. Also, when during the day? I try to write everyday but it is difficult.

Thank you,

Nora H.


Hisham Matar:

I try, as much as possible, to write at the same desk at home. I find the regularity of that helpful. And I usually write in the morning. I work till about lunch time then use the afternoon to read and edit what I've done. This changes, depending on where I am in a book. Towards the end, when it feels as though the weight of the book is pushing me along, I write and edit all day. But normally, I usually write for no more than 3 or 4 hourse a day. It is difficult to maintain the focus for longer than that. It is also helpful, I find, to reserve at least a third of the day, for other preoccupations, where you are not thinking about your work. The imagination needs its rest too.


Name: Micah

Location: Iowa City

Your question:

The protagonists of your first two books are a 9- and 14-year old boy, respectively. Can you describe what attracted you to write from the perspective of youth?

How does a boy protagonist allow you to explore Libyan politics differently from, say, writing about it for a magazine? Has it brought new insights for you?

Hisham Matar:

Well, technically speaking Suleiman and Nuri, the protagonists of my two novels, are adults recalling, in their different ways, memories from the past. I am in my work, or at least in these two novels, interested in memory: how our present colours the past, and how our memory nudges the present. It is a much more fluid relationship than we think. Certain "bad" times become sweeter with the years, and things that we thought of as absorbing at one time might become regrettable later. This is partly why I think time and memory are very important in these books. So I was not trying to explore Libyan politics, I am not really interested in politics, but trying to explore human life. In my first book, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN, it happens to take place in Libya; my second novel, ANATOMY OF A DISAPPEARANCE, takes place in Egypt, Britain and Switzerland mainly, and none of the characters in it are Libyan. 


Name: Zlatko

Location: Iowa City

Your question:

Could you tell us what role do you assign to your readers: on the one hand, while you're writing, and on the other, once the book is already published. This is a question pertaining both to the choice of language you write on and to the plot/content of your book.

Hisham Matar:

Interesting question.

When I am writing, I very rarely if ever think of a reader. This changes when I am editing. When I editing I am thinking of not a particular person, but persons, people I love. So I think I write for myself and those I love. When the great playwright Edward Bond was asked recently if he was pessimistic about human life, he said, "Why else would I be talking to you if it is not a gesture of hope." Art is, I think, a gesture of hope but always, no matter what one is writing about, arises from a sense of love. In other words, writing to me is a kind of praise; of calling things by their name. As for the language, I don't feel that is so much a choice. I write in one language.


Name: Nick

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

Your question: When you write, do you find that you are inspired more by feelings or facts?

Hisham Matar:

That's a good and difficult question to answer. Mainly because it is a mystery to me where the work comes from. And I fear analysing it too much. One of my heros, the late Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, once said that the two things he distrusts the most are power and analysis. And I suppose I agree. But I would also say that one needs everything to write, particularly a novel. You need your obsessions. You need philosophy and pleasure, ideas and poetry. And all you have to do is make yourself available to these things. Which is the most diffuclt and most effortless thing.  


Name: Elizabeth

Location: Iowa

Your question: How did you incorporate your own story in the Anatomy of Disappearance without pushing the novel into the nonfiction genre? How did you choose to write a book of fiction instead of nonfiction?

Hisham Matar:

I did not incorporate my story. What I did, though, is lend my protagonist, who is not me, some of my obsessions. I then went about inventing another reality and people not to record or document real events, but to do something all together different. Something impossible to describe without typing out the entire text of the novel.


OK, I have to go now. Thanks for your questions.

Best wishes,



This event is part of an ongoing effort by the IWP to cultivate a dynamic on-line community. Please contact the IWP ( with any questions about this or future events.

Photo of Hisham Matar:, 2011