Meet Marisa Silver: The American Novelist who loves Naguib Mahfouz and The Arabian Nights

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Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of the novel, Little Nothing. Her other novels include Mary Coin, a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award for Fiction,  The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, and No Direction Home. Her first collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. When her second collection, Alone With You was published, The New York Times called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” In 2017, Silver was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine’s first “Debut Fiction” issue. Winner of the O. Henry Prize, her fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies.

The Egyptian writer and journalist Samar Nour interviewed Marisa Silver during her visit to Cairo to attend the Cairo Literary Festival earlier this year. 

Samar: You started your life in the film industry in 1984, and directed several movies; you didn’t start publishing short stories professionally till the year 2000, and your writing was well received. In the beginning, what’s the secret behind your career shift after a fairly long period of time working in Hollywood? Does this have anything to do with your interest in the visual aspect in your writings, and the obvious cinematic techniques in the works I’ve read so far?   

Marisa: Although I thoroughly enjoyed my filmmaking experiences, the more  worked in that form, the more I began to understand that the kinds of stories that interested me were stories whose focus was on the granular interactions between people rather than the broad sweep of plot that carries along the narrative of so many films. By turning to literature, I was able to tell stories in a way that ultimately felt more natural to me. Having spent a decade imagining stories visually definitely impacts my writing especially in terms of the way I envision the interaction between a character and the place he or she inhabits, whether it is a particular room, or a desert landscape. I’m fascinated by the ways in which the place we live impacts who we are, how the air we breathe, the land we walk on, becomes part of our souls. A character set against a backdrop — it’s a very cinematic concern.

Samar: Your short stories and novels have received great critical acclaim, and have simultaneously achieved huge sales in the States, even though there’s a kind of distinction between works of value that mostly don’t gain popularity on the one hand, and between works that reach best seller lists and are mainly considered by critics to be of less value on the other hand. Do you consider it possible to reach this balance, and have your works achieved it?

Marisa: This question interests me because of the world “value” that you talk about. I’m a bit suspicious of this idea of value, because who sets the terms for what is valuable and not? And who is to say that a book that sells extraordinarily well but that is not determined, by the critical or taste-making establishment, to be of literary merit, is not of value to the many people who read and presumably liked it? So, while I agree that many books that I find particularly intriguing and inspiring do not often sell well, I’m more curious about the ways in which we, as a society, ascribe value to artistic accomplishment.

I have read “The Arabian Nights” and thought about it very specifically when I was writing “Little Nothing” which is a book that concerns itself, like “The Arabian Nights” with the power and use of stories. I have read and loved works by Mahfouz and al-Aswany. 

 

Samar: Obsession with the present moment, that brings the hero/heroine back to previous touching moments of their lives, cancelling the imaginary dividing line between present and past, seems obvious in your short stories. To what extent does that represent the driving force of your world?

Marisa: I am quite fascinated by the relationship between the recalled past and our present actions. I use the word “recalled” because memory is not a bringing forth of an exact replica of the past. It is a fiction woven out of the truth of what has happened to us and a kind of reimagining of those truths colored by emotion and nostalgic desire. And then we take this fictional recollection and use it as a basis for so many of our ongoing choices in the present. So, the present, and then the future that spins out from the present, can be viewed as the evolution of a fiction we create when we remember.

And now, having been in Egypt and having been so inspired by the people I met there, I am going to seek out and read Arabic literature wherever I can find it. Reading across cultures is essential to me, both as a writer and as someone who seeks to understand the very complicated world I live in.

Samar: The heroine of your novel, “Little Nothing”, is a dwarf, and the novel revolves around the development of her relation with her body and with the world. And as I have read, in your novel “Mary Coin”, the heroine’s body also represented a burden to her. Does the position of women in America still pose ideas related to our relations with our bodies? Ideas that we assume no longer concern anyone but Eastern societies, or rather “Arab” societies in particular?

Marisa: Absolutely. So many of the on-going issues related to women in America revolve around the female body. The abortion wars are still being fought, and the issue of abortion has much to do with whether women should or should not have control over their bodies. Campus rape is a big issue in the United States, and we see so many instances where women’s bodies are seen as objects for men to violate. A whole conversation has developed around issues of sexual consent, and this is a very complex notion for women as well as men because it raises all sorts of issues about the ways in which men and women think about sexual availability and the body. And, of course, as we all witnessed during our election season, the language that many men use in discussing women can be coarse, objectifying and abusive. What I find most troubling is that the ways women and young girls think about their bodies is impacted by the waytheir bodies have been routinely and historically denigrated.

Samar: Can you explain to what extent the choice of your heroine in “Little Nothing” is related to old fairy tales, and to what extent you have made use of them, with all their imagination and surrealism, in other works? 

Marisa: Pavla, the central character in “Little Nothing” is not taken from or based on an existing fairy tale, but what happens to her during her life, and the transformations she makes in and out of human form, is definitely inspired by so many tales and fables in which characters shift shapes in order to avoid or conquer certain fates. I read a lot of tales while I was working on the novel, but not in order to take particular plots and use them in my book. Instead, I was looking at the deeper, more existential implications of those tales. I was also interested in the way those stories were told, the way in which frankly surreal events were narrated in the most straight-forward prose, suggesting that the fantastic is a prosaic element of the real. I also looked at some of the more surreal literature out of eastern Europe, where my story takes place. I read Kafka, of course. And Agota Kristof and BohumilHrabal, all writers who, in differing ways, employ surreal narratives in order to explore essential truths about life and aboutthe State, and the ways in which those two things are structurally inextricable from one another.

Samar: It’s not only the stories of fairy tale heroines and their battles with their various body images that preoccupies you,

But you’re also preoccupied with working women who face life with their most minute psychological details, and face marginalization, carrying huger ambitions than society can afford them. Isn’t that the struggle of women in America, and Egypt, and everywhere in the world?

Marisa: Yes. And women deal with this issue to different degrees depending on so many factors – where they live, the way they were raised, whether they choose to have families or not. What is equally interesting to me is the very complex way in which societies view women who are ambitious, who are powerful, who lead. I am interested in the way ambition in a woman is often seen to be at odds with society’s idea of the feminine. Women have to redefine that term in the face of this. It’s a struggle. And struggle against odds is always an interesting thing to write about.

Samar: When I saw the list of the most important books you’ve read, from your point of view, I noticed that there wasn’t a single Arabic book among them, and I didn’t find that to be strange; However, a work like “The Arabian Nights” is well known among most Western writers, and they often mention it as being among the most important works they’ve read. Haven’t you read it, despite your interest in ancient fairy tales?

Marisa: I’m not sure any list I mention at any given time would do justice to or include all the books that have inspired me! I have read “The Arabian Nights” and thought about it very specifically when I was writing “Little Nothing” which is a book that concerns itself, like “The Arabian Nights” with the power and use of stories. I have read and loved works by Mahfouz and al-Aswany. And now, having been in Egypt and having been so inspired by the people I met there, I am going to seek out and read Arabic literature wherever I can find it. Reading across cultures is essential to me, both as a writer and as someone who seeks to understand the very complicated world I live in.

The interview was published earlier this month in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper.

Author : Samar Nour

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