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Q&A: "It's like being a singer-songwriter opening for the Beatles."

Linda Leith: You’ve been working in the literary milieu here in Montreal for many years. Tell me a bit about the work you’ve been doing.

Leila Marshy: I spent about ten years editing Rover arts, a “culture and conversation” magazine begun by Marianne Ackerman. We had a great run. We organized events and series and became a real respected critical voice on the cultural landscape. As senior editor I probably contributed about 400 articles and edited ten times as much. It’s been on hiatus for a year now as we moved on to other things. Who knows, maybe that old dog will run again.

LL: The Philistine is your first novel. Is it a book you’ve been working on for a long time? LM: I began it a little while back and probably spent ten years working on it on and off – as many years on as off. To be honest, about two years before it was published I had finally come to terms with never getting it published. I hear that happens often enough.

LL: Have you found that writing a novel is a big job? LM: A big yes, and a little no. It’s daunting, but not so much for the work in and of itself. It’s daunting because it’s like being a little singer-songwriter opening for the Beatles or something. I seem to have a very active voice in my head berating me for not sounding like Virginia Woolf or even Zadie Smith. You’re up against the entirety of literature, and here you are squeaking out a smattering of dialogue and a pale description here and there. Then there’s the prospect of people reading it. I don’t mind people buying my book, but I’m not so sure I want them to read it! It’s so intimate and private.

LL: Is there fun in it, too? LM: It’s a ton of fun. I love it. I love creating worlds and dialogue and characters.

LL: What was the most fun about writing The Philistine?

LM: As luck would have it, in the spring of 2016 my job contract ended and I was unemployed. I went on EI, something I hadn’t done since my 20s, and spent six months in the country writing and rewriting. During this time, I volunteered at a neighbour’s farm in the mornings and wrote in the afternoons and evenings. It was very intense. Every day was both physically and emotionally exhausting. A great combo. And then I sent it to you and you said let’s meet for coffee.

LL: Where does Nadia’s story come from?

LM: Obviously, certain elements are biographical but almost all of the details are not. I did go to Cairo in my late 20s and spent three years there and got involved with both the visual arts scene and the Palestine Red Crescent. Everything else is pretty much a tangent and is fiction.

LL: Her relationship with Manal is at the centre of the novel. How does this relationship further the process of self-discovery for Nadia?

LM: Nadia has the whole world before her, a multitude of paths and futures, while Manal has not only glass ceilings but glass walls and glass bridges. Manal is smarter and more talented than Nadia, but she will not realize half the achievements in her life that Nadia will. There is such tragedy in that. Stories like Manal’s touched me deeply when I was in the Middle East. And it’s not just women, but men too. Lives unrealized, talents never unfurled.

LL: The other key relationship is between Nadia and her father. You may be aware that Mavis Gallant describes the relationship with the father as central to Canadian fiction. I wonder if you could comment on the role you see Nadia’s father playing.

LM: Interestingly enough, Nadia’s father was a late comer to the story. He wasn’t even there in the early drafts. He’s there in spite of me and what I wanted and how I saw the story. So give that whatever weight and meaning it needs.

LL: Who are the writers you have most admired? Who are your models?

LM: So, so hard to say. The idea of admired writers and role models changes with every year, sometimes every season. It really depends on what I need at the moment, I suppose. So I will dig a little deeper and say that the first writer who really spoke to me was Emily Brontë. She has generally been pushed to the sidelines as almost an anomaly in the history of literature. Because she only wrote one novel, I moved on to her poetry. Underneath all those nineteenth century mannerisms is just so much crazy. I was eighteen and ordering rare Brontë poetry books from who knows where, paying every cent I had. I still know a few off by heart. She was monstrous, muscular, unbridled. A great writer to aspire to when you’re young. She’s also extremely complex – the layers of perspective and the collapsing plots in Wuthering Heights are astonishing.

LL: What is it that you admire most in the work of other writers? What is it that you feel you have been able to learn from them?

LM: I like writers who take risks. What Kathleen Winter did in Lost in September just makes me laugh with glee, for example. So audacious and idiosyncratic. It barely holds together, and yet it is rock solid. It’s an example of sheer force of will. Everything Heather O’Neill writes is an adventure for the reader. She plows away at all the detritus and details until there is only what matters. And of course Ann-Marie Macdonald. Her first two novels were such tours de force I still haven’t recovered.

LL: Your novel has a great title, and it is from you that I learned that “Philistine” means “Palestinian” in Arabic. Can you comment on how Nadia’s Palestinian identity is one of the keys to her development as a character in the novel?

LM: Being Palestinian is one of those mantles that only ever weighs heavy. You are instantly associated with terrorism and rock throwing and hijacking and, in a roundabout way, the legacy of the Holocaust. Any expression of your ethnic identity becomes an offence in somebody’s eyes. I vacillate about wearing a keffiyeh, for example. I have one given to me by my uncle – it’s just a scarf, after all – and it’s beautiful. But it’s hard to wear without feeling like you’re waving some defiant flag. Sometimes I just want to wear my nice scarf and not have the world around me assume I’m making a political statement. Nadia is struggling to find that place where she can just exist with who she is. For many reasons, including the fact that her father abandoned the family, coming to terms with her Arab heritage is a challenge. It pulls at her but it also taunts her. So that’s the pull of the filisteen. Manal’s life will become one of imposed philistinism. The term philistine is such a cruel and judgmental one. Who are we to call someone a philistine? If we were to judge Manal’s life choices from our very comfortable and privileged perspective, we would probably call her philistine.

LL: And what is filisteen? Somehow different from Philistine?

LM: Filisteen is the transliteral way of writing Philistine. The Philistines were also an ancient people of present-day Palestine. Maybe it’s a way of countering the dominant narrative that Israel/Palestine belongs only to the descendants of the ancient Hebrew tribe, today’s modern Jews. It also belongs to the descendants of the Philistines, who folded into the people who became the Palestinians, and who never left until forced to.

LL: How do you see your own identity as a Palestinian? Is that central to your sense of yourself?

LM: I’m a child of Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism, and grew up in a neighbourhood where everyone’s parents had accents, everyone’s food smelled different, and there were a multitude of colours and religions. It was this shared project of becoming Canadian. Ironically, my mother probably suffered more from people’s bigotry than my father did. Newfie jokes were plentiful and comments about her accent never ceased. It was all very insulting and I know it hurt her. For my father, he wrote and spoke out about the Palestinian “issue” quite often and there was always terrible fallout from that. We’d get nasty phone calls, death threats, fire threats. My mother eventually made him stop speaking out. At the end of the day, both my parents eventually lost their accents, which I guess says something about what they had to do to become “Canadian."Interestingly enough, in the past few years I’ve found myself forming a community with the Hasidim. I founded Friends of Hutchison in 2011 to counter a lot of racism in my neighbourhood. In the wake of all that, the media had a field day with me being Palestinian. I would say that my experience as a Palestinian has given me compassion for people who are targeted for their race and who suffer bigotry, which is why I feel so open to the Hasidim. I guess it’s ironic in a lot of ways, but in some ways it’s a very ideal comradeship. In spite of our differences, I like the Hasidim a lot.

LL: You are also from Newfoundland and living in Montreal. Your novel is set mostly in Cairo, and you have spent time there, as well. Do these very different places where you have lived contribute to your sense of yourself, too?

LM: Newfoundland is a magical place. My mother’s village, an outport on the southern shore, didn’t even have a road out until the late 70s. We’re all going out there again this summer, in fact, taking our mother. We’ll get a boat to bring her and her remaining siblings out the bay to Push Through, where old George, who landed there in the 1800s, is buried. Newfoundland is full of ghosts and you can feel them, including the Beothuk. But I can’t get too sentimental about Newfoundland, knowing about all that slaughtering. Newfoundlanders don’t just have fish guts on their hands, they have Beothuk blood too.Cairo is a little crazy the way Newfoundland is a little crazy. Egyptians are practically vibrating with warmth and need for connection and purpose. Egypt is a very special place that will wear you down as it builds you up. You need stamina and imagination to survive intact.

LL: It isn’t only in geographical terms that you have a varied personal history. You also have one of those classic writer bios, which includes a long list of different careers, of which novelist is the most recent. Can you tell me a bit about how fiction—your novel—allows you to draw on this experience?

LM: There are two reasons why I have found myself doing so many different things. One, I’m cursed with being half decent at just about everything. I’m not flattering myself, and it is a curse. Anything you throw at me, I can pretty much figure out and then do. But then I get bored and/or reach the limits of my talent, and so leave or am heaved. I’ve had so many “careers” it’s kind of nuts. I used to agonize over that, but not so much these days. Human beings are multifaceted and multi-talented. In a way, I’ve been lucky to have been able to practice so many different skills and talents.All these work and people experiences have given me enormous insight into the human condition, I suppose. There are so many different ways in which people are ambitious, competent, ethical, principled, generous. And of course, the flip side. Greed must be one of the ugliest things on this earth, and I’ve seen a lot of it.Through it all, writing has been an almost completely private and hidden pursuit. There are people I am very close to and who have known me for years who have no idea I write and were shocked to find out I’d published a novel. But I need that privacy to really let go. It’s like singing in the shower.

LL: Though written in English, the novel also includes some dialogue in Arabic and a little in French. I have the sense that you want to include a great deal in this novel. Is that something you were conscious of, when you were working on it?

LM: I love languages and it’s very natural for me to speak a kind of franglais. I always have. I wish franglais were a recognized creole. As for Arabic, I’ve spoken it much better than I do now, but it’s always with me. There are still very many times when I restrain myself from automatically saying something in Arabic. A book and the act of writing is about language, why not use as much language as you can?

[Photo by Nicole Périat]

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