Q&A with Colum McCann

Q&A with Colum McCann

The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.

Today, Colum McCann tells us more about his novel 'Apeirogon'. An apeirogon is a mathematical term for a shape with a countably infinite number of sides and is used by McCann as a metaphor for the complexity of relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. The panel said this “astonishing novel is utterly and brilliantly grounded in the political realities of everyday life in the Occupied Territories, and the friendship of two men, who have both lost daughters in the conflict, and who forge a moving friendship across the many barriers that would divide them.”

Bassam and Rami are the central figures in your book – fathers who are using one of the most awful things that can happen, the death of a child, to try and find some common ground, connection and hope. Can you tell anyone who hasn’t read the novel a little about these extraordinary men?

“Extraordinary” is the right word in all its dimensions – extra and ordinary at the same time too.  I met Rami and Bassam six years ago when I visited the town of Beit Jala in the West Bank.  I got to listen to their stories – how they had lost their daughters, and how they had become friends, against all the odds.  As they spoke they seemed to take every ounce of oxygen from the air.  They pried me open and wrung out my tired heart.  I knew fairly early on that I wanted to write about them. What they were saying was full of radical empathy: we certainly don’t have to love each other, or even like one another, but we better learn to understand each other or we’re in trouble.  Their line is that if we don’t understand each other above ground we will end meeting each other six feet below ground.  They’re incredibly courageous. Even to this day if they go the gates of a school there will be parents out protesting against them. Sometimes there are even riots.  But they wait patiently to tell their stories to the kids in the schools.  Bassam quotes the idea that “between right and wrong there is a field, meet me there.”  I was deeply moved and forever changed by meeting them.  But they are ordinary men too, in the best sense of the word.  They're humble, they're down to earth.  I knew it was risky to write about them, but the only things worth doing are the things that might break your heart.  Writers these days have to work out of a reckless inner need.  The books that I enjoy, like the ones on the shortlist, are prepared to risk sentiment, risk interpretation, even risk humiliation, because they are stories that need to be told.

Your book operates at the border of religious, ethnic and geographical divisions. In such situations, what, if any, do you think is the role of imaginative literature?

I think the role of imaginative literature is to put us into the pulse of the moment. By this I mean that literature can help us become alive in a body or a time or a geography not our own.  We can be there when the bread comes out of the oven. And we can be allowed to understand that which others suffer without having to bear the actual physical scars.  Literature in this respect is an act of resistance, even an act of civil disobedience at times.  The best stories are those that other people want to suppress.

Has the reception of your book differed in different continents and countries?

Not really.  It has ruffled a few feathers in places, but the ruffling of feathers is a good thing.  Otherwise, let’s face it, we would not be able to take flight.  I love the fact that I got an Arabic translation.  And the book has also been received with very open arms by progressive Jewish circles, especially in Britain and the States.  This is complicated territory.  I tried to step beyond the facts and the figures and the histories, and I tried to reveal the beating hearts behind it all.  It’s complicated and it’s messy -- and that’s good.  I want to write another book in praise of contradiction and messiness.  Of course Whitman said it all when he said that we contain multitudes.

Who are the writers – fiction and non-fiction – you would say have (in Orwell’s phrase) “turned political writing into an art”?

Orwell of course.  I hope that’s not me playing the field -- it’s just true.  Orwell, Orwell, Orwell.  I remember as a teenager in Ireland reading "Animal Farm" and then "1984".  And then being profoundly influenced by "Down and Out in Paris and London".  It shook me out of the ruts of ordinary perception.  I became a journalist and then took a bike trip across the United States partly based on my experience with that book.  His idea that the average millionaire was “only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit” not only made me laugh but encouraged me to listen to people.  And it’s within listening that our democracy exists.

And then there’s John Berger.  Don DeLillo.  Toni Morrison.  Arundhati Roy.  Ed Doctorow.  And there’s Claudia Rankine.  Oh and countless others.  I fear making a list because I would leave a favourite author out.  But I will always always always begin and end with John Berger who wrote of beauty and terror in his deeply political world.  “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” Hallelujah.

Buy Apeirogon from Bookshop.org here.

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