Novelist Hisham Matar on his return to Libya

First aired on Ideas (1/8/13)

Libyan novelist Hisham Matar was still a boy when his family fled to Cairo to escape the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. The author of Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011) and In the Country of Men (2006), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was in Montreal this past spring to take part in the annual Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Inn an onstage interview, he spoke to Ideas host Paul Kennedy about his recent trip to Libya, which he wrote about for The New Yorker.

Matar was born in New York City, of Libyan parents, then moved to Libya, then to Egypt at the age of eight, and later studied in England. He currently lives in London, and resists defining himself according to national identity. "If I have to, then I would say I'm a Libyan British writer who was born in America," he said. "It's all so absurd. And the absurdity is interesting because it reminds us that these ways we define ourselves or the way the world defines us are always, by definition, unsatisfying...I am Libyan, but I'm not just Libyan."


However, Matar acknowledged that his homeland has a strong hold on him. "Having said all that I've said about the ambiguities of belonging, there's no other place that has haunted me as much as Libya, that has concerned me as much as Libya," he said. For him, the country is associated with "loss, dispossession and fear...thing s that have affected me and my family. So my experience of the country since 1979 hasn't been positive. Maybe that was part of what connected me to it so powerfully."

Matar's father was a dissident who opposed Gaddafi early on. "Three years into the Gaddafi rule, my father placed himself on the wrong side of the dictatorship. And the consequences were incredibly dramatic, because we had to leave the country, and he was eventually kidnapped and taken back to Libya. And then he very quickly vanishes into the prison system and becomes one of the disappeared."

Matar pointed out that a loved one disappear is not the same as mourning their death. "That sort of fate is very different. The quality, the weight and the temperament of your grief is very different," he said. "Also you can't stop hoping. We speak often of hope as a positive thing...but the idea of living in hope to me is kind of a grim misery. After a while, hope becomes a sort of burden, and certainty is what you really want."

Because of what happened to his father, Matar believes it was inevitable that "whatever I wrote under Gaddafi was a political act, whether I wanted it or not." And yet he considers himself "deeply disinterested in political involvement...I've never felt totally able to give myself totally to a political idea. But I've been committed to justice. And my relationship to literature and to citizenship is informed by justice.".

Matar said he was deeply affected by his return to Libya. Two or three days into the trip, he became very anxious, and couldn't understand why. "Eventually I realized that everything I had to engage with this country was from the past. It was either through my father, or through my paternal family's involvement...or memories from my childhood. But I had nothing immediate," he said. He felt he needed something solid to hold onto, and found that the "staggering beauty" and "material physicality" of the country itself helped to ground him.

Matar found writing about the trip a transformative process in a way. "I did feel I was making an object, I was making art," he said, adding that this allowed him to confront some of the things that had seemed overwhelming at times in his life and "to possess them in some way and to order them in such a way that deepens, or possibly can, our sense of the world and of time and of relationships and engagement with history and landscape and nature."

Matar went on to say that he saw writing about the experience as "an appropriate, worthwhile thing to try to do. To make something beautiful out of it, without for a moment reducing its potency and its intensity, seems almost an act of resistance but not a political act of resistance, an aesthetic act of resistance."

Listen to the whole interview in the audio player above.

Recent highlights: