Pierre Jarawan is one of the featured German-language authors at the 2019 Festival Neue Literatur, which will occur March 29–31 in New York City. Zachary Issenberg, who will be interviewing Jarawan at the Words With Writers event on March 29, spoke with Jarawan about his debut novel, The Storyteller (tr. Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, World Editions, 2019), Lebanese history, and his approach to writing as both a slam poet and novelist.
Zachary Issenberg (ZI): Your novel, The Storyteller, begins with an epigraph: “If you think you understand Lebanon, it’s because someone has not explained it to you properly.” A funny way to begin, but it’s put to immediate effect in the first scene when the narrator, Samir, is stabbed and mugged. “But we’re brothers,” he says before passing out. “I’m no stranger, I have roots here.” What are you communicating with this opening?
Pierre Jarawan (PJ): Basically that opening scene tells readers not to trust what they’re going to read about Lebanon the next two hundred pages. I wanted to put readers in a position where they feel they know more than Samir, although Samir is the one who is telling the story. But immediately after this scene, you encounter Samir as an eight-year-old boy who is being told all the time that Lebanon is paradise on earth. You as the reader now know that this cannot be entirely true, as he will be stabbed there twenty years later, which is something he himself does not yet know. I consider that entire first page to be very important as it is all in there: the first paragraph is a description of beautiful Beirut, then violence unexpectedly occurs, which leads to Samir telling you his perception of his environment through all five senses. I wanted to do that because I consider “The Storyteller” to be a very sensual book, where you are able to smell the food, see the ocean, hear the music, and so on. So that opening scene is there to tell you: this is what you’ll get over the next 449 pages.
ZI: The Storyteller is about Samir’s father, a larger-than-life man who told mythical and historical stories about Lebanon before disappearing when Samir was eight. The novel dances between Samir’s past without a father and his present-day search for the storyteller in Lebanon. I’m not going to spoil the heart-stopping conclusion, but Samir realizes by the end of his time in Lebanon that it’s not the same country he grew up imagining. What drew you to write about his father and fatherland in this way, and how did you arrive at Samir’s conclusion?
PJ: When I started writing, I wanted to tell a story of the second generation that we have in Germany—as well as so many other countries, of course—and about the issues this generation faces. This generation, myself included, did not make the decision to go to another country. Their parents made that decision when they were very young or not yet born. So growing up, these children often speak the new language better than their parents, and they go to school and make friends. But at home they are confronted with their parents’ past, and with parents who left a whole life behind, who often talk about that life in an idealized way, who preserve their culture and have greater difficulty in making themselves a home in this new country. For many of the second generation, this leads to them to ask themselves, Where is home? Where do I belong? Who or what am I? They are torn apart between two countries. In Samir’s case, what is being told to him are not lies. There is a beautiful Lebanon. But this is only half of the truth, and when he goes there to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance, he necessarily has to encounter the other half of the truth.
ZI: The Storyteller develops a mini-narrative in its last one hundred pages about an objective account of the Lebanese Civil War. “The older folk remember happy childhoods, family gathering on the terrace . . . who wouldn’t want to go back home?” one character says whimsically, while Samir seems ultimately uncertain that’s possible. Your novel even has a history of events listed after the epilogue. What research did you do for the novel, and how did that shape its structure and Samir’s story?
PJ: It took me two years two do the research. I read books about the war, talked to people who came to Germany in the ’80s as refugees from Lebanon, and I also went there myself and spoke to students, for example. When I started writing, I did not intend to write about thirty years of Lebanese history, but then I found that it was impossible to write about that country without writing about politics because everything there is political. And talking to people over there is very interesting. You know, Lebanon has eighteen different religious groups, which all participated in the civil war with militias. Today, there is no history book, because people cannot agree upon history. You have eighteen different narratives about guilt and innocence and who was responsible for what happened.
ZI: Before this novel, you were an award-winning slam poet, weaving daily observations like watching Troy at the theater into aphorisms on life. How do these two types of storytelling inform each other in your work?
PJ: I think they are very different. After making a living as a slam poet for more than six years, I found writing the novel liberating. Writing for readers is very different than writing for listeners. For example, on stage you should not describe certain moments too vividly, because listeners will get lost in an image while you continue speaking. It’s about being short, about having punch lines, and so on. On the other hand, I think slam poetry was the best school for me. If you consider a chapter of a novel as a short text, they become somehow similar. I think my experience on stage helped me in making the reader of the novel always want more by closing chapters with cliffhangers, and so on.
ZI: The Storyteller’s been wonderfully translated by Sinead Crowe and Rachel McNicholl. Can you talk about your involvement in the novel’s translation?
PJ: I absolutely love the translation as well! They managed to preserve the poetry in the language as well as the rhythm, which is very important to me when I write. So I was not really involved as they did not really need my help and I trusted them one hundred percent.
ZI: Language plays such an important role in your slam poetry and fiction. Samir reflects at points on his own bilingualism, which makes him feel neither German nor Lebanese. Can you talk about the influence on your work of having to learn multiple languages at a young age?
PJ: I’m not sure if it had an effect on my writing. Because today my Arabic is not really good anymore, I could not tell you a story in Arabic. Language, of course, plays a big role in identity, and as Samir is struggling with his life in Germany, he uses Arabic to set himself apart from others. While it was not so much the language, I can say that the culture had an impact on my work and on the sound of the novel, which at some points comes close to a tale from 1001 Nights and to what I would describe as typical Arabic storytelling: rich and vivid language that sometimes reminds you of fairytales.
Pierre Jarawan was born in 1985 to a Lebanese father and a German mother and moved to Germany with his family at the age of three. Inspired by his father’s love of telling imaginative bedtime stories, he started writing at the age of thirteen. He has won international prizes as a slam poet, received the City of Munich literary scholarship (the Bayerische Kunstförderpreis) for The Storyteller, and was chosen as Literature Star of the Year by the daily newspaper AZ.