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Lonely Enterprise: Sara Saab on Writing, Competitive Eating, and Cavities of The Soul

A self-driving train with a clumpy Slavic name; a wispy hotel in the Algerian desert; Beirut of the near-future, waltzing between dry and wet spells — these are only some of the distinctive locations of Sara Saab’s stories. If she were a painter, she would be a consummate landscapist. As a writer, though, she is a self-proclaimed pragmatist, exploring the sensory qualities of the worlds she puts to page. And while her characters burn and beam for attention, you get the feeling that they know that they are being up-staged by the backdrop, that their destinies emerge from their settings. Sara, it would seem, is a lot like her characters; she is aware that even when she braves strange fictional lands, she is shadowed by Beirut — her place of birth and a city she once knew well.

Based in North London, Sara writes both poetry and prose, and has been published in magazines such as Shimmer, Clarksworld, and Strange Horizons. Themes of longing, loneliness, and things being only slightly “off” abound in her writing. Take, for instance, this line on loneliness from — what might just be her most spell-binding piece yet — “The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea”: “It is a fish, a thing of the ocean, slapping forever in the chest, eroding a space in the heart shaped like its own body.” This is Sara Saab describing the most important setting of them all: the empty cosmos that reside inside each of us.

“The Calm the Love the Traceless Land” is her most recent short story.  In it, the characters have been languishing under the sun for over a century, sleeping together, and never venturing out beyond the desert. When she and I speak, I ask her what lies beyond the desert. “I don’t know,” she says, “you tell me.” With no need for over-explanation, she lets the written environments speak for themselves.

We meet over Skype, she from London and I from Beirut, to talk about everything else: from hipsterdom to Arabic chat language to touching the original jailhouse-rock manara. This interview has been edited and condensed to remove the interruptions by two of Beirut’s literature-phobic felines, Orion and Pretty Stardust, who attempted to kill each other, ruin the keyboard, and knock over beverages just to thwart the conversation. Thankfully, they did not succeed.

MA

What are you drinking?

SS

It’s instant coffee because I ran out of beans yesterday. And I’m not an early morning—okay—cool. So you have a mason jar — so the hipster thing is in common at least —

MA

It’s a…it’s a glass.  It’s a traditional glass.

SS

Oh really? You bought it in a shop…as a glass?

MA

This is kombucha.

SS

Okay, nice, so you’ve out-hipstered me.

MA

I make my own kombucha, so yes, I out-hipstered you. Walaw?

SS

(Laughs) That’s amazing.

MA

So. Hi Sara!

SS

Hi Milia! Nice to meet you.

MA 

Nice to meet you, Sara. Or should I call you alixanaeuphoria?

SS

Oh—

MA

Is this a pseudonym? Or a pen name? Or in our digital world, is this a —

SS

It’s a very old digital handle that I’m trying to phase out, but it’s still on some of my stuff, in-cluding my email address. Don’t call me that. It comes from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel.

MA

Well that brings me to, I think, my first real question. Have you ever wanted to write under a nom de plume?

SS

…Yes, yes. There are some topics that I want to mine a little deeper, that I pull back from be-cause I still have a lot of ties to the Middle East, and there may be topics that are not in wide discussion in our part of the world.  So that’s the thing that sometimes sits in my mind, but at the same time, I think it’s important for me to have a single authorial identity and be an author of many facets.  There are some authors who do a nom de plume for every genre and that’s not me. I like multifariousness, I like multifaceted-ness. So far, the jury’s out.

MA

Speaking of genre, how do you like to describe your writing?

SS

It’s really hard, in particular, with people who ask, but don’t have the concepts that writers do. So at my day job, I often say that I write “weird” stuff, and “weird” stuff lowercase but also uppercase. It comes in and out of fashion, but I’m sure you’ve heard of “Weird Fiction” as a sort of subgenre of genre, where things are just a little bit strange; where there’s a tear in the fabric of reality. I think that’s the closest thing. I used to use the term “magic realism” but that’s actually quite a loaded term, and after reading up on it, it’s considered a sort of appropriation for non-Latinx writers to use, really. I try to encourage people to not use it unless they are Latinx.

MA

I can’t remember if it was Isabel Allende who said that it was strange that her work was considered magic realism when what she writes about could have actually happened and was part of her grand-parents’ histories.

SS

And that is not a universal experience. I think there are some cultures other than Latinx ones that have that experience. In Filipino culture there’s a lot of that interweaving of the supernatural with the mundane in their oral tradition, but I don’t think that all cultures have the same cultural power behind using that language. So I prefer “weird.” Weird is good, but people don’t understand it when I say, “I write weird stuff,” it seems like I’m being evasive. I usually say, “Some science fiction, some horror, some realism,” which is true, even if it doesn’t imply correctly that those things are sometimes in the same piece.

MA

Did you start out writing poetry, and what is it like transitioning between the two?

SS

That’s an awesome question. Yes, I did start out writing poetry, but very bad poetry, which I think is probably a very common way to start writing poetry. I wrote poetry until my early twenties, and my first few publications were poems, and then I began to write prose, but my prose was very obtuse and image-heavy. It still is, a little bit. But obviously I’ve been working on prose-writing, and I’m learning more about narratives and what I call “story motors,” things that make people and stories move forward, and how not to get stuck in shoe-gazing. In the last two years, though, I’ve turned back to poetry. I consider myself a baby-poet, I’m trying to learn. There’s a renaissance of Arab dash Muslim poets rights now. It’s a really wonderful time to be part of the Arab diaspora and listening in to this global conversation of these poets writing in English. There are loads, and I can give a great list for readers to get started.

MA

On your blog, you have a list of books you read in 2015. Of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unecessary Woman, you wrote that it didn’t contain enough “eau de Beirut.” Your piece “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” is literally a story where Beirut condensation is trapped for human consumption. What is “eau de Beirut” to you? What are some of the images of Beirut and Lebanon that haunt you? How does Beirut influence your writing?

SS

(Laughing) Where to start?

MA

Three-hundred questions in one, but you have to answer!

SS

No, no, but it’s also the question. You know? It’s the one. I went to a talk last year, it was a panel with Zeina Hashem Beck the poet, Saleem Haddad the novelist, Nasri Attalah who is a novelist as well, and Zahra Hankir. There was a question about Beirut and how Beirut sits in the lives of the Lebanese diaspora. Somebody said that there was this crippling nostalgia when it came to Beirut that is always in your sinuses, always. I really do feel that. I have never considered anywhere deeply home, but Beirut is my formative home in many ways. I left when I was five and I have been back many times but, definitely, there’s been a sense of distance when I’m there. It’s funny, the distance is lessened when I’m far and very, very, very severe when I’m there. As a city, in terms of its place, artistically, in my life, it’s such a sensory…I don’t know how to describe it, but when I’m there, my senses are awash in Beirut. Melancholia and beauty and sadness, and all of that stuff feels dialed up to eleven. That, for me, was missing in Rabih’s book. I also generally hold people to task on a sense of place in fiction, that’s very important for me as a reader—

MA

No, you’re obsessed with it. Don’t say you “hold it to task.” You are obsessed with place.

SS

I’m obsessed with place, I’m obsessed with place. That’s true. And cities—

MA

And roads.

SS

And roads, yeah, and lighthouses…this is a slippery slope. But I went on a pilgrimage to touch the old lighthouse when I was in Beirut. The black and white one.

MA

When you mention the manara in both your poetry and prose, I know you’re talking about the old one because the new one doesn’t hold a candle —

SS

Oh my God, not even a bit! I thought they had torn it down because of the way my mom described it. I asked, “Where’s the old lighthouse?” and she said, “It was bombed and not working, so they built a new one,” something like that. But then I was out for a run last summer on the corniche and I looked around, something just turned my head, and I saw it. And I couldn’t…it was just this moment of elation. I hadn’t realized it was still standing and I went back around two hours later to make my way towards it, ended up right at the foot, saw the lighthouse keeper’s house, and touched it. It was a very important pilgrimage, because I grew up right there, hammam al-aaskari, so I have quite strong memories throughout the years of the light of that lighthouse sweeping over the balcony. The light-house is very important. So thank you for mentioning that about “Pan-Humanism,” that’s obviously my story with Jess Barber. She brings a lot of the mastery to that story that I could never imbue it with. I’m really happy you said that because it was a hard story to write in terms of getting the right near-future sense of Beirut, a hopeful Beirut which is hard to rationalize against reality.

MA

There’s this line: “Post-water-crisis Beirut is mesmerizing, boisterous street markets by day and elaborate street parties by night.” What is it about diaspora writers and partying…does it have to do with nostalgia (which can be such a luxury emotion!)? How does Beirut even get to this post-conflict but not post-inner-conflict city?

SS

I want to hit on your point about nostalgia being a luxury, because I agree one-hundred percent. I think it’s one of the deficiencies of being a diaspora Lebanese, and also diaspora Arab. We become infected with this platonic sense of our homes and not the reality, not the brick-and-mortarness of it, the day-to-day. The sad truth is that if there was water shortage and Beirut constructed misting rooms where you went and took a mist shower with strangers to conserve water, probably they would become sectarian. I think that’s the reality. Different segments of the misting room for different religious groups. It would very quickly become very “Lebanese” in that sense. I believe in humanism, and I really think that identities in opposition is a very dangerous thing we do as a species. It’s fine to have an identity you are part of but not when that comes with an unpacked power dynamic and subjugation and oppression of other marginalized peoples. There’s a lot of that in play in the way we define our identities in Lebanon.

MA

What was shocking to me was that Amir and Mani shower together, that they can. Imagining a world where being a woman doesn’t have to be a daily wear and tear, shell-shocking of the body, where gender lines are blurred, was really refreshing.

SS

You can imagine the relief of imagining this story. Jess and I both have gender non-conforming presentations, to an extent. Nonetheless, in ways that you describe and in other ways, we experience gender-based othering. I remember when I was a teenager in Beirut, it was very traumatizing just to be day-to-day. The dudes in the cars with the whistling and the honking. But to be able to imagine a world where that was just not…a thing. It’s just a beautiful thing. We wrote a little blog post about it and part of it was that we just needed to do something to heal ourselves. We were feeling so much existential anxiety and we wanted to be in a place that felt comfortable, for a while, and that was the world of this story. We wanted the world to seem like it was going our way for a while.

MA

Was it hard explaining Beirut to her?

SS

No, Jess is an incredibly good writer. She had never been to Beirut and I wrote most of the Beirut sections. The one that she wrote, that I was really touched by, was the meditation room. I gave her a reference of a stately home or a mansion in the Lebanese mountains, and she knocked that one out. She wrote the international scenes and the character interactions.

MA

We are stuck on this romantic idea of the suffering writer in solitude. Would you work with another writer again?

SS

I would do it again with Jess. It worked really well. It was hard, though. We suffered together because it’s one of these things where the way people discover and cultivate writing craft — and I’m sure this is your experience, too — it emerges dynamically out of day-to-day life, and coping strategies, and heuristics, and ways of learning; and everybody’s a snowflake. Everyone’s writing craft is a unique snowflake and nobody’s is the same. That’s why writing advice is always so suspicious to me. It depends on some kind of similarity and there isn’t always. Jess tracks the emotional line of the story when she is working, and I consider myself a pragmatic writer. I want the story-line to go away so I can play in the language a little bit more. We had places where we differed and, I think, we did a good job in that they weren’t clear to readers. I would work with her again. I learned a lot.

MA

I can’t get the image of a woman, a competitive eater, swallowing the sea and still feeling empty in “The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea” out of my head. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you are fascinated by…well…holes in bodies —

SS

That sounds like a terrible indictment of me, Milia.

MA

I knew this was going to come off the wrong way. For instance, you use the word “gullet,” not gorge, not esophagus. Something about that open vowel sound of “uh.” That makes it sound so desperate, so lonely. In “The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea,” you use it, and in some of your poems, too. In your story “The Calm the Love the Traceless Land,” you have a character sitting in a greenhouse teeming with life and you write, “It is the loneliest place” the character knows. Do you feel we have a hole that can never be filled?

SS

“Gullet” is such a beautiful, onomatopoeic word. It sounds like what it does. It’s very tempting for that reason. But to go back to the very first thing I said — that I value multifaceted-ness in art — I was lamenting the fact that, these days, story collections often have to be thematically linked. That there’s a thread running through all of the stories in the collection, and I was saying that I wanted to write whatever I wanted to write and not to have to be limited by thematic similarity. Then I was reading through the synopses of my stories and I just realized that they are the same story. No matter whether they’re set in a surrealist desert or an Eastern European —

MA

Or on the London Tube heading to some “place.”

SS

Exactly. So it’s funny that the themes are existential confusion, loneliness. I’m quite a solitary person and I have a lot of meaningful relationships in my life, but I do feel like most of my perspective is interior and that I spend a lot of time, like many introverts, working through things in my own head. I’m not existentially at peace with the human condition. That’s one way to put what’s coming out in the stories. It just seems like a very lonely enterprise: to begin out of nothing, and spend some time, and end then into nothing; to me, is just a tragic set-up. It’s the only set-up we know, but it’s a tragic one. The loneliness of it does ring out in the stories.

MA

It’s so beautiful when Srdan from “The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea” says of this epic battle against the sea, “You think you will fight to live, but you don’t.” It’s our lifelong war against these massive things we don’t really understand: the sea, the internet, death. We can’t resist the force —

SS

The bigness.

MA

What’s ironic is that Neave is a competitive eater but never hungry. When I told my mom about your story, she mentioned all these competitive eating shows that people can’t turn their attention away from. I’d never seen one, but she knew all about them.

SS

Your mom is not far off. I was morbidly fascinated by how people do this. I saw a couple shows. It is, in itself, a very disturbing art where you start out doing something that feels very good and within minutes feels really, really bad. It just also seems like the thing you would do to satisfy some need, in particular, something very deep inside. It struck me as very poignant to think of someone doing this and yet had a need or a lack that they could never reach, that this itch was unscratchable. That’s where Neave came from. Like I said, all my stories are about the same thing, and it’s just this alot-ness of life and also the very, very small and personal and lonely side of life. How we are born, we grow up, we deteriorate, and we die. That’s what I’m working through in my stories. Another inspiration for “The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea” was the novel Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente which was a very powerful, northern, cold fairy-tale retelling…which I really recommend.

MA

In your poem “Dab3 (Mount Hermon, 1998)”, there’s a footnote at the end where you explain what Arabic chat language is. Why did you feel the need to explain it and why did you use that spelling choice?

SS

Good question. Arabic chat language is ubiquitous for us; we use it and are fluent in it —

MA

No, I don’t use it and I’m not fluent in it. I let my students write plays in it, but —

SS

You don’t use it? Why? Are you against it? I need to hear this.

MA

In a way, it’s very helpful and accurate, but my eyes have not acclimated to seeing numbers inside words. Whenever I’m learning a new language, numbers are always my Achilles’ heel. I don’t know what that says about me. But language is changing, of course.

SS

Yes it is. (Laughing) Unfortunately, it is. That is the truth. There’s no way to represent a “ع” in Roman lettering and it sucks. A lot of the time, people are reading it as “Dab Three,” which is annoying.

The right way to represent the word “ضبع” would be, I imagine, to stick an apostrophe on the end of the “b,” but it just doesn’t get the letter. The letter is so visceral.

MA

Right, and the apostrophe could also stand in for a glottal stop and that would be incorrect.

SS

Yeah exactly, it just doesn’t cut to the heart of these letters, which are so different and fundamental. So I put a note in to describe the fact that it’s a hard sound for a non-Arabic speaker to make or conceptualize. The “ع” is a hard one. As it turns out, I resist italicizing or calling attention to Arabic words in my work in general, but in this case, the sound gets at something about what it is to see a hyena. I wanted that to counteract the tendencies of a Western reader.

MA

In your poem “Desire Lines,” you write about being grossed out by your mom, but not only that. We return to the idea of roads, roads that used to span the earth. You compare the roads to “stitching in your wee football.” That is such a clear image and makes me think of your ties to the Middle East, all the roads that we can’t take, all the movements we can’t make anymore. As you write for a mainly Western audience, what kind of movement do you see for your writing?

SS

I don’t expect that my writing has a lot of reach within the Middle East, but I have very complicated feelings about intersectionality and diaspora. I think like most diaspora writers, I worry about misrepresentation and misrepresenting my home, which I have a less concrete lived-experience of than people who live there. So I have trepidation about how I’m doing. But I would love to have more of an Arab audience. I think they would catch things that a Western audience doesn’t catch, they would notice a lot more of the detailing and the subtleties.

MA

Who are your literary lighthouses?

SS

I’m so glad you asked me that question. I think the best living short-fictionist is a writer called Sofia Samatar. Sofia is, in many ways, my lighthouse because she has done something I want to do, which is that she started writing pure genre fiction (and still does that very well) but has also started to write mixed genre stuff, mixing academic approaches with fantasy, realism, literary devices, poetry, breaking the fourth wall. It seems to me that she doesn’t care what people think about her doing these things, and I love it so much. She has a tiny book called Monster Portraits with her brother in which they profile several monsters, but of course, like everything Sofia does, it’s not about monsters; it’s about us. Her short story collection Tender is a pinnacle of literature, for me. She’s also the kindest of people. One more literary lighthouse is Samuel Beckett and his play Happy Days, where a woman is half-buried in a mountain on stage. Another book that features heavily in my pantheon is The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. It’s his first and only novel so far, in the tradition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Again, this is not unique but a lot of my literary genesis comes back to that root novel, which was very important to me growing up. I think of The People of Paper as the millennials’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read a lot of short stories and a lot of short story collections are doing amazing things: crossing genre boundaries, taking a lot of risks. It’s incredible how many good books there are out there and how little time there is.

*Sara’s poetry recommendations:

Ruth Awad
Carolina Ebeid
Safia Elhillo
Zeina Hashem Beck
Marwa Helal
Philip Metres
Jess Rizkallah
Omar Sakr

Contributor
Milia Ayache

Milia Ayache is a Beirut-based actor, writer, and Linux enthusiast. She recently appeared as the lead performer in Angelmakers: Song for female Serial Killers. Her writing has appeared in American Theatre Magazine as well as the book Stages of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Capitalocene (NoPassport Press). Milia teaches playwriting and creative writing at the American University of Beirut and holds an MFA from The American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University.

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