Spectres of Palestinian history: an interview with Isabella Hammad

Bill V. Mullen

Mondoweiss  /  September 1, 2023

Writer Isabella Hammad discusses her approach to history as a novelist, her sense of political commitment as an artist, and her thoughts on the prospects for Palestinian liberation.

Isabella Hammad’s first two novels are powerful and artful meditations on Palestinian history and diaspora.  In The Parisian (2019) Midhat Kamal, the son of a wealthy textile merchant in Nablus, travels to Paris to study medicine. He returns home after a broken love affair to find Palestine under British rule, and becomes witness to a surge of Palestinian nationalism culminating in the 1936 Arab revolt.  In Enter Ghost (2023) Sonia Nasir, a British-Palestinian actress living in London, returns to Haifa to visit her sister Haneen and ends up playing the part of Gertrude in a West Bank production of Hamlet which Israeli authorities attempt to shut down.  Both novels test the main characters’ capacity to fathom and participate in forms of political resistance, while offering astute portraits of Palestinian civil society fueled by desires for national liberation and personal freedom.  In this conversation, Hammad talks about her approach to history as a novelist, her sense of political commitment as an artist, and shares thoughts on the prospects for Palestinian liberation.

Isabella Hammad was born in London. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Conjunctions, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. She was awarded the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and a 2019 O. Henry Prize. Her first novel The Parisian (2019) won a Palestine Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in the UK. She was a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ Honoree, and has received literary fellowships from MacDowell, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. She was selected as one of the Granta ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ in 2023.  Her second novel, Enter Ghost, was published in 2023 and reviewed in Mondoweiss.

Hammad will be a featured speaker at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in Philadelphia in September.

Bill Mullen: You’ve described yourself as a “history nerd” and have said in an interview that you write fiction aware of “how mainstream history — popularly understood, not just the history of professional historians — is beholden to the narrative of the victors.”  How did this understanding inform your writing of either or both of your first two novels? 

Isabella Hammad: Yes, this understanding certainly underpinned my thinking when I set out to write my first book, which told a story set mostly in Nablus before the Nakba of 1948 and the establishment of the Israeli state. To a certain extent, it’s probably something I always bear in mind — that artists and writers should be challenging mainstream narratives of what has happened, why we are where we are, what might have been otherwise, as well as specifically being conscious of the importance of narrating Palestine, given the history of propaganda levied against Palestinians and their right to have rights, and ways the question of Palestine continues to be discussed, quite often without any Palestinians present.

ou write conscious of the present historical political circumstances that impinge on the lives of Palestinians and other historically marginalized people. You’ve noted about the movement and calls for reparations for slavery and colonialism that “it’s worth pointing out that the majority of the world’s population already has this historical sense and doesn’t need a reminder.”  Do you consider Palestinian literature, or yourself as a Palestinian writer, part of a literary bloc — postcolonial, anticolonial, Third World, for example — seeking to bring forward an oppositional or subaltern point of view to “Western” readers?

I’m conscious of having multiple audiences: I write in English, and a large part of that audience is going to be “Western,” as you say; but there are also huge markets for English-language fiction elsewhere in the world — in India, for example, as well as in the Middle East and South Asia at large. This is aside from translations, which can theoretically open up a work to an even broader audience. As a writer, I seek to strike a balance between writing in a way that is accessible to readers not familiar with the context (although I am neither a hand-holder nor a footnote-r), and giving pleasure to and stimulating my Palestinian readers who, though maybe not as numerically large a readership as say, the whole of North America, are very important to me personally, for obvious reasons. Good political art is not agitprop. More than learning facts from a novel, a profound reading experience should be an experience of recognition, and this sometimes means seeing things you already knew or were familiar with in a new light, or finding your own way into what initially seemed strange or unfamiliar. But I’m wary of treating literature as a tool to present a subaltern point of view to readers in powerful countries, as a tool of persuasion or appeal. I consider myself a politically committed author, and I am in my writing preoccupied by the intersections of the political, the aesthetic, and the ethical, but I’m skeptical about asking novels to do the work of political advocacy. At the same time, I know artists can play a valuable role, and the provocative effect of presenting an “oppositional viewpoint” (although whether it’s actually oppositional depends on who a particular reader is and what their values are) can be a beneficial by-product. But you can’t let that consideration overwhelm you when you sit down at your desk. I don’t think that mindset makes for good, sensitive novel writing, with its engagement with all that is mysterious and ambivalent and strange in human experience.

In both of your novels, gender and sexuality play important parts. The Parisian turns on a broken interracial romance, which surfaces cultural differences and tensions around love and marriage. Sonia, your protagonist in Enter Ghost, seems very aware of expectations for women about motherhood and marriage. As a Palestinian woman and woman writer, how important is it for you that your fiction represent gendered experiences and gendered difference?

Again, I’m not so much seeking representation in that highly politicized sense of — this is underrepresented, and therefore, I want to step in and plug that gap. I’m a woman, and I’m a feminist, and these personal facts naturally filter into the work in different ways. Probably, I start out with certain ideas or certain complex realities — like, as you say, the expectations women face (and sometimes Arab women in particular) regarding motherhood and marriage, and how this operates in the context of a freedom struggle — and then what began from a position of political concern or interest is freed of that initial point of view, at least consciously, and it becomes an element of the narrative to play with. I stop thinking about my responsibility to represent something: I start to think about how the multi-sidedness of a theme or element of reality can be made use of, can be made to ring across the pages in different, stimulating ways; a woman’s experience, or a man’s experience for that matter, becomes another object in the field of vision.

Your books seem especially attentive to social class formation. For example, the ways in which middle-class or affluent Palestinians do or do not feel kinship with or participate in political movements led by peasants or working-class people. When you look at Palestinian history, what lessons do you draw about social class?

Palestinian social history bears similarities to the class dynamics of other colonized societies, albeit operating on different timelines. Fanon riffs on Marx to describe how, in a colonial situation, the peasant class replaces Marx’s proletariat, while the agenda of the working classes in colonized cities is compromised by their desire to emulate and benefit from the good graces of their “cosmopolitan” colonizer. This makes the dominant class struggle in colonized societies one between city and country — which is a pretty good description of what happened in the twenties and thirties in Palestine, where the rural population took matters into their own hands and led an uprising against the British Mandate and the Zionists, while the urban elites were stalling in negotiations and the stagnant waters of internecine rivalry. A version of this story continues to repeat itself, with a gulf between the masses and the political elite at the time of the First Intifada, culminating in a betrayal by that political representative body of the people; and we can see another version today with the statecraft of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Apart from coordinating security with the Israeli regime, this statecraft often also involves directly punishing subversive elements in Palestinian society. The lesson to be drawn? That we must insist the struggle is a progressive intersectional one, that seeks emancipation for all, simultaneously. Anything less is ethically and politically compromised.

You’ve cited a wide range of influences on your work, from early readings of Virginia Woolf to Ghassan Kanafani, about whom you said:  Kanafani is a “model of how to be politically precise and psychologically complex at the same time.” Do you write conscious of situating your work among national traditions in literature? 

 I try to be open in my influences and to be led by curiosity, by a desire to learn and listen, and that includes engaging with Palestinian literary traditions. I think, in general, the idea of national literatures is becoming more wobbly over time, in part because, after liberation, nationalism stops being a progressive force — but with Palestine, we have not yet seen liberation. The diaspora is enormous, and the social experiences of Palestinians living within historic Palestine are even more varied than in most other societies because of the legal and geographical architecture of the Israeli regime, and we have all these people writing about or in the name of Palestine not only in Arabic but in different languages — and that variety and multiplicity, as a quality of a national tradition, is rather extraordinary.

Your next novel is set against the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, where 29 decolonizing Asian and African countries came together to try and build solidarity against colonialism (and to which Israel was not invited). What interests you about Bandung as a subject for one of your novels?

I started out thinking about the Palestinian struggle in the mid-twentieth century in the context of the other anti-colonial struggles happening at the time. This is such a rich period, with so many interesting sources and stories. Today, the word “solidarity” is thrown around a lot, but in those days, it had a really practical application, at a diplomatic level. This is the period when the Third World was invented as a project, a period of re-imagining the world in the aftermath of empire, just a few years after the Palestinian catastrophe. I was curious about how Palestine fit into that moment of general uncertainty and possibility. Then I came across a photograph of a Lebanese delegate in a bulletin printed during the conference, and given that I’d read several times there were no women in the delegations, my curiosity was really piqued. I was also intrigued by the gulf between romantic memories of Bandung-era solidarity (and the plentiful historiographical errors in accounts of the conference itself) and what actually happened. Plus the fact that a surprising number of people in the Anglophone world have never even heard of the Bandung Conference in the first place.

You will be a featured participant at the Palestine Writes Festival September 22-24 at the University of Pennsylvania. What feelings or thoughts does it provoke for you to be part of a global festival of Palestinian writing? 

Feelings: excitement, happiness. I participated in the inaugural festival in 2020, which ended up going online because of the pandemic, and I was amazed by how much the community feeling and joy of participating came through even via the weird medium of Zoom — I mean, that really says something. It’s a difficult time politically, and these opportunities to gather are really fortifying. Most of all, I’m looking forward to listening to the other writers.

Bill V. Mullen is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Purdue and is a member of the Organizing Collective for the United States Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel