Libyan Author Talks about Reluctance and Rebelliousness

Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men addresses Wooster Forum

October 8, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Libyan author Hisham Matar admits that he has always been reluctant to talk about his own work, but after some prodding by several College of Wooster students during the Q&A session at last week’s Wooster Forum event, he opened up about his motives and his approach to being a novelist.

Matar, the author of In the Country of Men, which was required reading for Wooster’s first-year students this past summer, spoke about writing in general and specifically about his award-winning book, which was published in 2006.

“One of my intentions when I was writing this book was that I wanted somehow to rescue — if that’s the right word — the private interaction and how (people) are in some way nudged, or corrupted, or twisted, or pressured by this narrative outside of the home,” he said. “In other words, when you grow up in a place like Libya…there are good myths and bad myths. I don’t think countries can exist without myths. The myth under dictatorship is a very oppressive one, like how is it possible to live under this situation and what do these things tell us about the human condition.”

Matar also stated that writers are, by nature, rebellious, and he expanded on that assertion when asked about it by one of the students. “The rebellion arises from one’s own conditions,” he said. “I rebel against the temptation to stand for one side or the other or to use my work as a mouthpiece for anything. I guard it like a rabid dog. I am incredibly firm when someone gets into this space.”

Another student asked Matar what was on his mind when he was writing In the Country of Men, a story told from the perspective of 9-year-old Suleiman who provides a compelling narrative of life and survival in Libya during Gaddafi’s reign of terror and political oppression. “I had no motive,” he said. “I write for myself and the people I love. All writing, even the darkest form, stems from a deep desire to communicate, and express love and hope.”

In addressing the complexities of writing from the perspective of a young boy, Matar said, “It was like writing with one arm tied behind my back. (But) two years into the project, I realized it allowed me a lot of freedom.

“As a writer, you are trying to understand the book as you are writing it,” he added. “You try to listen to it, rather than impose things on it. A writer must be incredibly patient and listen to the book.” In this case, the main character became progressively more capable of saying the truth as it is, according to Matar.

“The curious thing about becoming obsessed with a person who has never existed,” said Matar, “is that you think about them all the time when you’re working on the book, (but) once you finish the book (he) becomes more mysterious than before.”

In closing, Matar issued a challenge to the students, saying that the main character is “more yours (than mine) now. You figure it out.”

The next Forum event will take place tonight at 7:30 p.m. in McGaw Chapel when Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), talks about “Water and Middle East Peace: Challenges and Opportunities.”