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Mazen Maarouf

Iman Humaydan Younes: Literature and the grip of war

The Lebanese author has recently published her third novel [al-Araby]

Date of publication: 10 February, 2015

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Feature: The Lebanese writer discusses her third novel, and how her writing connects with her personal experiences of war and gender.

When Lebanese novelist Iman Humaydan Younes (b. 1956) writes about war, her personal experience is never far from the surface.

In particular, her memories are manifested in her works as the tense, strained encounters between women and war.

"We can’t expect to begin writing without reflecting on our own personal experiences - for this itself is the primary vein," said the author, whose latest novel Other Lives (2014) was recently translated into English by Michelle Hartman.

"My experiences may differ from those of other women who have stayed in the same place all their lives and retained a sense of belonging - even if this is, by and large, a delusion."

Speaking of her life experiences, Humaydan believes she was incredibly enriched by a friendship she had with a man from an opposing faction "at the height" of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). The relationship gave her insight into what life was like on the "other side".

Humaydan belongs to the post-war literary scene: a generation of writers who have lived and testified to the bitter suffering of civil war.

When we ask how years of conflict painfully imprinted in the visual and personal memories of writers have made their mark on the literary narrative, Humaydan responds with depth.

"The war, in all its hideousness, played a huge role in casting off the burden of linguistic heritage and releasing new and different forms of narrative. It had to happen through a decisive, violent break with the past - and the war, and its scars, proved to be just that."

     It's not the state of belonging, but rather separation, which produces different and contrasting literary styles.
- Iman Humaydan Younes 

The novelist does not, however, overlook the significance of individual and collective loss at other levels during the conflict.

Such loss also played its part, strengthening existentialist values and opening up boundless fields of vision in narrative and writing.

"It's not the state of belonging, but rather separation, which produces different and contrasting literary styles. This separation did not occur in a vacuum: it created the human condition for the birth of the civil war novel.

"It not only shook literary language, but also the structure of the novel. Moreover, it projected our relationship, as intellectuals, with our surroundings: family, politics and society," she said.

As the author of Wild Mulberries (2001) explains, this accelerated and dynamic change in narrative left literary critics still clinging to classical standards of Arabic literature, unable to grasp new developments on the literary scene.

The characters in Humaydan's novels, particularly women and girls, are surrounded by subjugation - as though it were a realistic condition for endorsing their value as human beings.

For example, Myriam, the central character in Other Lives, despite all she has been exposed to, remains conscious of her fate as a woman.

"I want to say subjugation actively and forcibly exists, and I cannot ignore it either as a woman or as a writer."

By the same token, Humaydan prevents herself falling into flat speech against the oppression of women; the female characters in her novels try to rise above their general condition, creating individual and private outlets of light.

At the same time, these characters reveal a fragility which has come to characterise the modern individual who has no sense of belonging anywhere.

"Myriam in Other Lives is a fragile character," said the author. "The fate I laid out for her was to go back to where all the pain had begun - to her native Lebanon - tantamount to looking the beast in the eye."

At the same time, the characters Humaydan portrays in her works could just as easily resonate with male or female readers. In her novel B as in Beirut (2007), Humaydan sought to illuminate how similar the state of fragility remains in both sexes. This also features in her latest novel, which tends to lose sight of the "blurred boundaries" between male and female.

     Both men and women suffer political oppression. They are both searching for a window out.
- Iman Humaydan Younes 

"Both men and women suffer political oppression. They are both searching for a window out. I no longer have faith in collective solutions: it is the individual who is at the crux of change, and the prime factor in determining his or her destiny," she explained.

But the novelist does not yet seem to have finished with the Lebanese civil war.

She says she originally thought Other Lives would be the last of her works to deal with wartime, but when she first began to write her new novel, she found all of her characters were still immersed in the heart of that war.

What sets Humaydan's new novel apart from her previous work is her treatment of reality. This time, she takes a different and more inclusive approach towards the theme of violence and memory. Rather than focusing solely on the Lebanese experience, the novelist takes into account the wartime experience of Turkey and Syria too: "In this way the war is not over yet - nor the story."

Humaydan's fixed point of departure in her writing does not necessarily isolate her from current political changes in the Middle East. More than anyone, writers must be finely attuned to these, for it is the big events, in their crudeness, density and bloodiness, which can most harm the imagination on which their work depends. In any given period, writing is a responsibility.

The author's realism alerts her to the fact that today's writers no longer have the same sway over cultural and social change as they did in the 1970s.

The intellectual has been substituted by the political and religious, which are totally at odds with the priorities of the individual.

What we refer to as "The Arab Spring" is simply a paradigm. The brutality of the present has overcome any possible symbolism or imaginative effort to make sense of it.

However, history has seen many epochs of bloodiness - while literature and art have the enduring power to stay within both the conditions of reality and of creativity. To this, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Neruda, Picasso - and now Humaydan - stand as everlasting testament.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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