Forget white picket fences, Mischa Hiller chose to set his coming-of-age novel during 1982’s Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. Natasha Dirany speaks to the breakthrough British Palestinian author
Time Out Bahrain staff
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story now, almost 30 years after the Sabra and Shatila massacres? Sometimes it’s better to have some distance from events before you can do them justice in fiction. As new facts emerge, one can be more objective and detached about what happened. Also, although the idea was knocking about in my head for a long time, I had to be in the right place mentally to actually write it, as well as having the time. We mustn’t forget of course, that these events, like most historical events, have resonances in the present. So I’d argue that it’s important to tell this story now, especially since a new generation of people has never heard of Sabra and Shatila.
You chose to tell the events of the civil war during 1982 through the character Ivan’s ‘coming of age’ story. Why?
In order to draw the reader in emotionally I wanted the events of the massacre to form a backdrop to the story, rather than be the main story, which would have been too heavy going. And for that I needed someone like Ivan, who, like teenagers everywhere, is trying discover who he is. He is stuck between childhood and manhood as well as between identities. Hopefully the reader empathises with him and wants to know how things turn out for him. In fact you could say that I wrote about Ivan’s coming of age through the events of 1982 Beirut, and not the other way round.
So, how much of the book is based on personal experience then?
I’d say about 50% of the book is based on personal experience. I did volunteer in Sabra as an interpreter for foreign medics in 1982, for instance. However, the work is definitely one of fiction.
What’s your relationship to Beirut these days? I left Beirut in the winter of 1982 (a few months after the massacre) and have not been back since. Beirut holds good and bad memories for me and every time things settle down and you get a glimpse of what it could be like it gets knocked back (like in 2006) by another devastating event. However, I do believe that Beirut has an indestructible spirit that always emerges despite what gets thrown at it. One day I may return.
‘Sabra Zoo’ is your first novel. What do you normally do to pay the bills? I was working as an IT consultant, but had to retire recently due to ill health. Naturally I’m hoping that the writing will start to pay some, if not all, of the bills! Now my wife works full time while I try to write.
You’ve also adapted the book into a screenplay... did you always have a film in mind while you were writing the book? Although I wasn’t thinking of the screenplay when writing the book, I had a mental picture of everything as I wrote it, and I was told it was a very visual novel by those who read it. It was an easy decision to adapt it, and I’d always wanted to write a screenplay; although the adaptation itself required some changes to the story to make it work as a film.
Are you’re keen to spread this story wider than the Arab audience... I want everyone to read it, of course! It is a bit of history that people should know about and, as I said, it is still resonating today. There is already a whole generation of readers to whom Sabra and Shatila mean nothing, so I hope they will get something from it, as well as just enjoy the story for the sake of it.