Interview with Massoud Hayoun (author of When We Were Arabs and the upcoming Ghorba Ghost Series)
Posted by Darf Publishers, January 25th 2022
DARF PUBLISHERS: BUILDING 46 is the first in the two-novel Ghorba Ghost Story Series. The series comprises your first- and last-ever novels. First, what does the series title mean? What is ghorba?
MASSOUD HAYOUN: Ghorba — غربة — means strangeness in Arabic, and it is a term frequently used to describe the feeling of longing for one’s homeland in Arab diaspora arts. My grandparents, who raised me and whom I wrote about in the nonfiction book When We Were Arabs, experienced ghorba in their many displacements from their homelands to the so-called West, for instance.
DARF: Why ghorba ghost? Both novels are stylistically very different, and yet they are so clearly related.
MH: At their base, both novels are ghost stories and involve ghorba. The ghosts and the ghorba manifest in radically different ways, not just between the two novels, but among several of the characters in each book.
I’ve hidden little bursts of the ghorba and the ghostly throughout. I won’t spoil those for readers.
I can say, more superficially, about what ties these books that the protagonist of both is called Sam Saadoun, a name that I invite people to read closely, as everything in these stories. Both are gay Jewish Arab Americans. But they are very different people and are not to be confused with each other.
DARF: Are you a ghorba ghost, Massoud?
MH: This isn’t about me; it’s about the Sam Saadoun’s and the colourful characters who surround them, in Beijing; in Alexandria, Egypt; and in Brooklyn.
DARF: Fair enough. And why will LAST NIGHT IN BRIGHTON be your last novel?
MH: That will become clear when it’s released.
DARF: No hints for our readers?
DARF PUBLISHERS: Fair enough.
Context is important. We know what we can — for now — about Last Night in Brighton. And we know that Last Night in Brighton will take us back to Alexandria, Egypt in the 1930s, the setting of much of your award-winning first book When We Were Arabs.
We know a bit about where Building 46 is headed. But where does it come from? Tell us about and how you view Building 46, your second book, as both a continuation and a departure from When We Were Arabs.
Massoud Hayoun: When We Were Arabs is a decolonial memoir of my grandparents, who raised me, and a political theory emanating from and applied to their lives. My grandmother Daida was a co-author of that project. She died three months into writing. So it became a book about mourning and finding what remains of my family in the vast, diverse Arab peoples.
Building 46 is a novel — my first. It’s about a young, gay Jewish Arab man exploring a mysterious murder in China. And beyond that, it’s a political allegory with implications that run far beyond the boundaries of just China and my identities.
There is an area of continuity between When We Were Arabs and Building 46 that I would like to underline for readers: My first book —When We Were Arabs — addresses the ongoing killing and dispossession of Palestinians and the common threads between various colonial projects. This second book, Building 46, is a coming of age story, a Queer story, and a bit of a thriller. But like When We Were Arabs, the intent is political and urgent. Both are about the relationships between humans and the halls of power.
A difference that I would like to observe between Building 46 and When We Were Arabs is that Building 46 is not autobiographical. I must insist that despite a protagonist who shares some of my qualities, it is not a work of autofiction, and the people who would assume that it is should interrogate that assumption.
DARF: It’s not autobiographical, but you can access the mindset of the character easily. Is there also the suggestion that being Jewish-Arab-American and gay is not necessarily one, concrete thing?
MH: Yes, absolutely. There’s a spectre of me not just in the protagonists of these novels who share my ethnicity, faith, and sexuality, but also in many if not most of these characters. And there are other characters who are composite sketches of a great many people I’ve known in and out of China. But then, I am also a composite sketch of everyone I’ve known.
I found it humorous at first that the main character of a novel — even one that I would write — should be a gay Jewish Arab North African American person, and then I had to interrogate why that was funny to me — why I subconsciously considered my particular communities from among the Arab peoples to be marginal. There aren’t very many Jewish Arab people in the world — especially those who actively identify with that legacy. But still, it does come to pass that we and other peoples perceived as marginal travel to China, find ourselves intrigued by murder mysteries, come out of the closet, fall in love, etcetera. And those experiences stand not only to entertain but to help us understand a rapidly rebalancing world.
When I was writing the first Sam, I recalled often that the celebrated writer Viet Thanh Nguyen said that writers from a so-called minority should write as though they are the so-called majority. At the time, I also noticed a lot of billboards and other media in Los Angeles where people of colour — where they existed in an advertisement at all — were relegated to the sidelines of the more central white characters. There are almost no so-called Western or so-called white people in Building 46. The few that exist are marginal, ephemeral characters. This is — like every detail of Building 46 — by design: a rebalancing act with Professor Nguyen’s advice in mind.
In general, I would hope that readers interrogate — as a sort of meta mystery-within-a-mystery — what is and isn’t absent from Building 46. I think they’ll find it to be a delightful, little puzzle with a surprise twist at the finish. I won’t spoil the surprise.
DARF: What was the pull to writing a novel rather than non-fiction?
MH: I didn’t begin with genre in mind. I thought about what I wanted to do and how best to do it.
With the last book and this one, I began with an objective — I realise there’s a message or a set of messages that I urgently want to convey to the world. There are truths or lives or a mix of both that I want to present to the world or underline or honour to some end that I feel to be in service of humanity and life. And then I determine the best genre and medium to convey those messages, ones that afford me the greatest range of movement and strong footing.
In other words, I’m unconcerned with having written a novel or a work of nonfiction for their own sake. I’m more interested in how those labels can serve my purposes.
That’s to say that fiction and nonfiction are like communism and capitalism. They appear on the surface to be diametrically opposed, scientifically distinct categories. In the same way that world governments have chosen these ideologies and then charted their own courses, I’ll function under one of these guiding genres, but ultimately, they nourish each other, they are inextricably linked, and they are entirely meaningless. Expediency will reign. The story and its mission will decide.
DARF: Where did the idea for Building 46 come from?
A love of Beijing and of certain people I’ve known.
A fear of the tendencies of a Trumpist world. The urgency of those fears.
An anxious need to reach people in a time of great indifference.
MH: Are you still writing about Arabness in Building 46, even though the book is set in China?
An emphatic yes to this question.
When We Were Arabs ventured a very explicit definition of belonging to the Arab peoples and the political potential of that. In a much more direct way than in this novel, I explained what Arabness is, after interrogating history and policy documents and discussions with concerned parties.
Building 46 is about and takes place in China, but it is very much about Arabness. It takes the ideas in When We Were Arabs a step further, because it explores how a protagonist who carries the things described in When We Were Arabs would function in an altogether different context — in China. Arabs are frequently defined — both externally and internally— in contrast to the West, as the objects of Western intrusion and occupation. That’s a valid view of Arabness, but on its own, it is Euro/America-centric. Here we see an Arab person defined in contrast to another burgeoning superpower in the so-called East. We see what that relationship — between a rising Eastern power and the Arab peoples — means for some, could mean, and will mean.
What’s more, there is a lot in this book that interrogates China’s and my own relationship to Islam at a time of rabid Islamophobia globally. It was important to me, in my lifelong endeavour to unpack Arabness, to meditate on my relationship to a religion that is mine culturally as a non-Muslim Arab person for whom that faith has had a great impact. As for Sam in the book, Islam was home to me in an unfamiliar place, very far from my family in the figurative and geographic senses.
DARF: What writers have inspired you?
MH: I have been thinking a great deal lately on Eileen Chang （张爱玲）, my long-time literary idol and one of China’s most iconic contemporary writers. Once, in a Chinese language class, we read one of her essays, in which she writes at the close, ‘生活是一袭华美的袍，爬满了虱子’ (Life is a gorgeous gown, crawling with lice). I’ve always been in awe of her style — her simultaneous fascination with and empathy for humans and her misanthropy: How it is at possible to at once be a loner, full of poetic resentments and to love humanity enough to write about it.
I discovered just last week that the apartment where she died, in Los Angeles, is an unremarkable building on an unremarkable side street that I frequently pass on my way to a restaurant in the Iranian American enclave known as Tehrangeles. I was happy to know that in a sense (although I actively disbelieve in signs and other magical thinking, to be clear), she’s quietly been with me, since that Chinese class in university.
I am perpetually in disagreement with Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir and more importantly, with Nawal el-Saadawi, but their political fiction and the force of their ideas certainly brought me here. From China, Liao Yiwu’s writing — the way he honours everyday people and the sanctity of their experience in his gutting and graceful poetry — has left an indelible mark.
Who is Building 46 written for? Is there an audience in mind?
Very much like When We Were Arabs, the politics of the book are paramount, important as the enjoyment is. It is for a world that terrifies me. It is urgent. In both the so-called West and East, we see superpowers emerging and beating war drums and infringing on basic civil liberties, entirely ignoring the sanctity of human life and dignity. And we see people reacting with fatal indifference.
I hope that, through an entertaining trip to the quietest corners of a world capital, people will recall the value of our shared humanity. Naive as it may sound, it is an entire political mandate that could revolutionise the generations to come. We don’t need for the future to be as dour as this Trump and Covid Era has been. Building 46 aims to plant a kernel of empathy-oriented politics in a generation lacking in love, nuance, and humanity. Our problems are of course a great deal more urgent than novels — in some senses, this is a meaningless, bourgeois exercise, at a time of death and dispossession. But I have endeavoured here to reach otherwise hard hearts and minds.
And finally and most importantly, everything I write — since When We Were Arabs — is for the Arab peoples. It is my life’s endeavour to undo the brain drain our world experienced when Jewish Arabs and a great many other Arab communities were ripped from our homelands in the 20th century. My work is intended to help inform and underline the poetic nuances of Arab futures.
DARF: Is there anything else you want readers to know, going into Building 46?
MH: I hope people will take note of the significance of Building 46 coming out from Darf Publishers, an Arab and North African publisher with an international scope that is jarring expectations in earnest. Arab and North African diaspora creatives can continue to enrich non-Arab and non-North African institutions with our labour — and be beholden to their restrictions, gentlemen’s agreements governing topics like Palestinian liberation and the systemic dehumanisation of other Arab peoples, and preconceived notions of how our stories should be told — or we can fortify ourselves and our allies and speak independently, on our own terms.