Author Interview: Hisham Bustani and “Perception of Meaning”

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SU Press: You’ve received a Bachelor’s Degree in Dentistry and you’re a Faculty of Dentistry. Is Dentistry still a part of your life? If so, tell us how it integrates into your literature and writing?

HB: I can hardly find it odd that a dental surgeon (or an engineer, or a chemist) is also a writer. One can be from outside the specific field of humanities and a writer as well. If I want to limit myself in the medical field, we’ll have a huge number of renowned writers like Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, William Carlos Williams, and Khaled Hosseini among many many others.
In the Arab World, it is almost impossible to live off writing or writing-related activities. MFAs in creative writing are unknown (an advantage in my opinion: writing stays raw, untamed); and if one is to take up a career in a newspaper, then he/she will be under the direct influence of the censors: like everywhere else, media is controlled by different forms of power structures and authority, and mainly connected to political regimes and their corrupt circles. I also think that practicing writing as a job kills the creative edge through repetition and habit. Creative writing becomes a mutated form of journalism; examples of this kind of “creative” writing are rampant in modern Arab literature, especially in the novel genre.
I want to be free, independent, uncensored, passionate and uncompromising in my writing; both in form and in subjects. This is why I make my living elsewhere outside the world of writing to maintain and protect my writing.
I am a practicing dental surgeon. My day is divided into four parts: mornings are for writing and following-up on my engagements as a writer; afternoon is time for my clinic and patients; evening is for personal and cultural activities; night is for reading. This way I can do a lot of things in a limited time of 24 hours per day.

SU Press: In reference to The Perception of Meaning, you’ve said this book, as well as most of your other works were, “written as an engagement with the atrocities committed by Man in the modern world.” Would you say you write to inform your readers of these atrocities or more as a creative outlet for yourself?

HB: Probably both. As a writer I feel the urge to comment on the everyday catastrophes we witness. In my area, catastrophe is condensed and looming with its heavy, acute presence. One cannot be silent and passive as hell breaks loose all around, and here I am not just referring to oppression, political and social turmoil, interventionism and settler-colonialism of which we have an abundance; I am also referring to overarching global phenomena as well: global warming, hunger, massive extinction. All those subjects manifest themselves on a daily basis.
In artistic writing, it is undermining to “inform” about the topics one writes about. Creative writing is not preaching and it loses its artistic essence if it transforms itself into preaching. To me, my literature, especially so in The Perception of Meaning, is all about opening fields of vision, exploring new depths of a subject, opening questions, engaging the reader in what is otherwise an “external” presence: something that is “far away” and unseen. It is like the wall Israel built to isolate the west bank and transform it into a big prison: everything behind it suddenly disappears, it no longer exists, the oppressed are shielded from direct vision and suddenly you have the illusion that everything is all right. But nothing is all right. We’re in this grand crisis, and my “function” in this context is to internalize the crisis through an artistic medium, I want that crisis to explode in the reader’s face. It is up to the reader then to complete the picture.

SU Press: How would you describe “flash fiction” to some of our readers who are unfamiliar with the term?

HB: Flash fiction is the synonym of very short stories. It has also other names like short-short stories, sudden fiction, micro fiction, etc. It is generally defined as fiction that is less than 1000 words in length. Others set the threshold at a lower word count.
I don’t like descriptions and definitions when it comes to creative writing. I am more inclined towards experiencing the text. I would want the reader to experience the book rather than categorize it in some literary genre. In the Arabic original, The Perception of Meaning had a subtitle that read: “stories at the boundaries of poetry”. To me, the short story form is very close to poetry; sometimes it is hard to differentiate a piece of prose poetry from a piece of short-short story. The Perception of Meaning is a trial at this sort of boundary-writing where the short story and poetry are at a very close encounter.
I’d also want to add that flash fiction is a huge writing challenge: The shorter the piece the more artistically demanding it becomes. In the short-short form, there’s an immense difficulty in approaching characters, events, time, and other aspects, coupled with an increased potential for producing mediocre or even bad writing, especially when there are an overflow of “writers” who are “trying their luck” in an age where the very short text has been prostituted in social media.

SU Press: In what part of the literary “multiverse” does The Perception of Meaning fit into?

HB: Roland Barthes categorized texts into two types, depending on their engagement of the reader: the ‘readerly’ (lisible) text that leaves the reader ‘with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text’; the writer becoming the “producer”/ the Creator, the reader a “submissive consumer” and the writing a mere “reflection of the real world;” and the ‘writerly’ (scriptible) text which invites the reader to interact with it and to participate in building its “reality”.
I try to write the short story in the ‘writerly’ form by condensed and suggestive forms, with multiple depths and hidden significations. All my literary writing, including The Perception of Meaning, approaches a quantum: a world of open potentialities and possibilities. I try to write a text that is able to generate and regenerate meaning rather than suggest a linear understanding.

SU Press: Are there any routines/rituals or atmospheres that enable you to write more creatively?

HB: The urge to write comes from tension, abundantly available in my part of the world; but writing itself requires a very quiet place, something that is impossible to attain here.

SU Press: Your book centers on a global pop culture, with references to American culture like Francis Ford Coppola, Coca-Cola and Facebook. Did you do any specific research to familiarize yourself with American life?

HB: American life is all over the planet. It is in our TVs, on the shelves of our supermarkets, on the internet, and in our cinemas. Globalization and commoditization of “US pop-culture” is omnipresent.

Here I have to make a sharp distinction between Francis Ford Coppola as an artist, and Coca-Cola as a profit-driven commodity. I think this distinction is very present in my book and reflects how different cultures can transcend languages, identities, and stereotypes and interact positively through deep artistic and literary influences (my influences from the US include Charles Bukowski, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Megadeth..); while at the same time profit-driven commodification aims at destroying those bridges through a process of unifying consumption units and consumers in “the market” which also aims at the commercialization of the arts. This is usually preceded by a process of military, economic and political intervention, and cooptation of the writers and intellectuals into the spheres of authority.
These interactions and contradictions are felt sharply in my region: while US-made Israeli F-16s bombard Gaza, I hear the harsh voice of Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl singing: “What if I say I’m not like the others? What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays? You’re the pretender. What if I say I will never surrender?” Obviously both the F-16 and Foo Fighters are part of the American pop-culture, but the sharp divide between both is clear.

SU Press: What would you like the reader to take away from your book?

HB: I want the reader to add to the book rather than take away “things” from it. For me, literature, especially the short form, should be all about expanding horizons, creating spaces; creating visions and “perceptions”. I write the short form not the novel because I want to be free from the dictatorship of linear history, free from imposing all the minute details of characters, rooms, furniture, and the all-encompassing blabber in extended dialogues. I write short fiction because I don’t want to be the God who dictates the destiny of the story. Short fiction is about opening the fields of imagination to each reader and each reading.

SU Press: The Perception of Meaning is a “collage of small nightmares”. Care to share about any collage of nightmares you might’ve experienced?

HB: I was arrested many times for stating my opinions. I witnessed torture first-hand. I wrote about it. I was arrested for writing about it. I live in a country surrounded by wars and hostilities. My people live in tension, running around all day to secure their and their children’s living, in vain. My area is plagued with interventionism and oppressive corrupt regimes; it is the playground of global and regional powers, with its people being the sacrificial pawns. Those who try to escape towards their ex-colonizers, the colonizers who pillaged their lands and resources and left them impoverished in failed states, are dubbed “illegal immigrants” and are denied entry, imprisoned in camps or left to drown in the Mediterranean. This collage of real nightmares surpasses any imaginary ones.

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