Hisham Matar

Yesterday evening Booker Prize shortlisted novelists Caryl Phillips and Hisham Matar spoke to students as part of the Barnard Forum on Migration. Itinerant expert Claire Heyison reports.

“Why do you write?” is an irritatingly familiar question to writers, and, while all too often avoided, one that must be addressed. Caryl Phillips and Hisham Matar, both visiting professors to the Barnard English department, bravely tackled the persistent question of  “why” yesterday evening in a discussion moderated by professor Kaiama Glover. Both authors prepared remarks, but, instead of answering the question outright, they circled around the question with personal stories, eventually closing in on an answer.

Phillips spoke on the moments when literature affected his life and of the journey that led to his becoming a writer. He retold his stories through an anonymous “boy,” which created the feeling that he could be speaking of any young writer. Certainly, his experiences must have sounded familiar to other aspiring writers and bibliophiles: the first time his writing was lauded by a teacher, being seduced by the glamour of words, losing himself in books to forget his own “woeful” adolescence, being “overwhelmed by [James] Baldwin’s brutal prose,” and finally, the moment when “mere ambition is fading and is replaced with something infinitely more powerful: purpose.” In one of the most poignant moments in his talk, he recalled his decision to pursue a degree in psychology in order to understand people, until an advisor suggested that this would be better accomplished through studying literature.

Matar’s began to think of himself as a writer on a deer hunting trip outside of Tripoli with his uncle and cousins. Throughout the trip, the he was occupied by the desire to make or become something during his life: “I was by then already writing…but the idea of wanting to be a writer was as laughable as wanting to be a breather or a walker or a man.”

The question and answer portion of the event, conducted by Glover, focused on the writers’ “compulsive itinerance,”— Phillips’ term for describing writing in post-colonial exile. Matar and Phillips agreed that the act of writing creates a space of belonging and gives exile a function. When asked to speak about women in their novels, the authors initially attempted to evade the question, but eventually responded in earnest. Phillips refuted the idea that he empowered his female characters for the sake of political correctness—“I don’t say, ‘In chapters 6, 12, and 17 they’re going to kick ass’”—women, he said, were simply more likely to be transgressive in situations pertaining to identity and belonging. Matar preferred to use his stories to explore how men and women absorb reality and relate to each other in different ways, particularly when dictatorship threatens personal expression.

Matar and Phillips made a convincing case for why writing remains a relevant and necessary task in a world increasingly focused on other disciplines. The event was well-attended, and was an interesting, unconventional addition to the Barnard Forum on Migration.

Image via wikipedia.