Some authors begin their careers at a tender age. Others come to the writing game relatively late in their lives, citing different reasons for the delay: they were stuck in another job, they were amassing valuable experience, they were holding off for inspiration or holding out for a lucky break. Lebanese author Hoda Barakat waited until she was 38 to write her debut novel The Stone of Laughter, not because of any of the aforementioned reasons, but something else entirely.
“I was afraid,” says Barakat, 69. “I couldn’t reconcile the idea of publishing my own work with my impression of the work of writers I so admired. I needed to hone my craft, and I didn’t feel an urgent ‘need’ to publish my work – after all, there were already so many beautiful books out there. I also needed to perfect my writing in Arabic.”
She certainly managed that. Barakat's novels have won some of the biggest awards in Arabic literature, from the Al-Naqid Prize for The Stone of Laughter (1990) to the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for The Tiller of Waters (2001). In 2019, she became the recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her masterful novel Barid al Layl. Expertly translated by Marilyn Booth, it was recently published in the UK as Voices of the Lost.
The book is a departure of sorts for the Beirut-born author. As a survivor and observer of Lebanon's Civil War, Barakat has produced a body of work that revolves around characters whose lives are shaped by the conflict and its repercussions. In contrast, Voices of the Lost follows a group of people floundering in exile. Their war-ravaged homeland is never named. One character says it is gone now, "finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass case, leaving only shards scattered across the ground".
Barakat's characters tell their stories and share their confessions through letters. They write to those they hold dear – mother, father, brother, husband, lover – every time opening their hearts and laying bare their souls. All have suffered personal pain, whether from loss, privation, degradation or dislocation. And yet despite the hardships they have faced or continue to endure, they battle on by speaking out, determined to be heard.
“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”
These kinds of protagonists – displaced, alienated, sidelined – appear again and again in her work.
Barakat, who has lived in Paris for more than 30 years, says she writes about marginalised characters because she can relate to their experiences. "A person living in a foreign land is always marginalised to a certain extent.
“In each of my novels, the characters struggle to pull themselves away from the margins, but don’t manage to do so. They are somehow weak: even if they aren’t entirely innocent, they find themselves confronted by the cruelties of fate. This forces me to reflect on the meaning of power, and how it operates on many different levels, some of which we might not even be aware of. But then again, that’s the nature of the human condition, which changes over time.”
Barakat admits to still feeling like a stranger in France. But while it might not be home for her, it definitely isn't exile. "In my case, no one is stopping me from going back to the country of my birth. So I'm not really an 'exile'.
"My work has received a great deal of recognition in France, even though I don't write in French, and it's a country where I've experienced true freedom. I suppose I also needed to put some distance between myself and the Arab world to realise how much love I felt for it, and to critique it more effectively."
Barakat did plenty of critiquing in 2019 when she worked as a visiting professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the US. One of the courses she taught was called language and rebellion in Arab literature. It showcased her own work alongside a selection of novels by other Arab writers. So does she consider herself a rebellious writer who breaks the rules?
"As far as 'rules' are involved, who decides what they are? Do we set up rules to avoid taboo subjects? For convenience's sake? To protect the established social order or entrenched social values? Maybe the rules I've had to break are more subtle, in the broad history of Arab culture," she says.
Barakat has recently broken if not a rule then a tradition, for Voices of the Lost is her first novel to not focus predominantly on men. For once, her marginalised characters are both men and women.
"There's something inviting for me in writing male characters," she says. "I don't think it's necessary for me to write about women just because I am a woman myself. This type of artificial boundary doesn't mean anything to me. If we all adhered to that way of thinking, white people would only write about white people, people of colour would only write about characters of colour, and so on.
"By the same token, an absence of a female character, for example, as in my earlier novel The Disciples of Passion, can be extremely powerful. I'm not saying that there are no differences between depicting and omitting a character or group, but that complex hall of mirrors is fascinating to me," she says.
In any case, all this looks set to change. “The novel I’m writing at the moment actually has a female protagonist,” says Barakat. “She came to me, and it seems she has stayed.”