The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with Edward Said, David Barsamian. (Haymarket Book) $15
In his 1994 introduction to these interviews, Eqbal Ahmad asked, “why this set of interviews with a writer as prolific and widely known as Edward Said?… One answer is that this book reveals more than any previous work the person behind the name.” That is indeed true, as Barsamian’s keen questions portray a more human Said, a man haunted by the frequent lack of counter-narratives, of the urgency that Palestinians—that all humans—be given “permission to narrate” their lives, their existence.
Nubar Hovsepian ends his 2010 introduction by quoting an unpublished speech that Said gave at a symposium in South Africa in 2001, which summarizes much of his formation as the great scholar and cultural commentator who gave us Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism:
Surely a great lesson of the last hundred years is that none of the great or small systems, whether imperial, ideological, racial, religious or socio-economic, is adequate to the world’s complexity, which cannot be herded neatly under one or other totalizing rubric. Such systems are false gods that routinely end up lapsing into barbarism and tyranny. Hence the alternative notion, that the world is incomplete, in the process of becoming, a magnificent series of fragments, certainly uncontainable by reductive schemes, nationalist or otherwise
Barsamian’s questions, ranging from Said’s take on literary icons like Jane Austen and Jospeh Conrad to his visit to his childhood home in Jerusalem to his interaction and ultimate disappointment with the PLO to his declining health, all point, eventually, to that great lesson. Throughout the five interviews collected here Said proves himself as generous a human as a scholar, as when he responds to Barsamian’s questions about what “an average person on a beach… about to be engulfed in a tidal wave of information and disinformation” can do to stay dry:
There are two faculties that we all possess and have to exercise in a situation like this, when there’s a media blitz, as there is most of the time when one story is the issue. They are: number one, memory…. The second faculty is skepticism…. You just have to exercise those skills and refuse to allow yourself to become a vegetable that simply absorbs information, prepackaged, pre-ideologized, because no message… is anything but an ideological package that has gone through a kind of processing process.
These interviews offer an important view into Edward Said’s own formation of those two faculties, they succeed in unveiling the man behind his work.
The World Within: The Tin House Interviews. (Tin House Books) $16.95
This collection, first released in 2007, is now available as part of the Tin House Books Writer’s Bundle (a bargain at $35.95), which also includes The Writer’s Notebook, The Story About the Story, and perhaps my favorite, The Journal of Jules Renard.
The World Within collects Tin House’s interviews with prose heavy hitters like Francine Prose, George Saunders, and Marilynne Robinsone, as well as poets Mark Strand and Christopher Merrill, Nicaraguan Neustadt winner Claribel Alegría, and filmmaker Gus Van Sant.
The Tin House interview is a particularly well-rounded variety, focusing slightly less on craft than The Paris Review’s collection but without the full-blown whimsy of The Believer’s, which is to say that the editors of the magazine have found a very human space, and a very intimate one.
For a contemporary American literary journal, Tin House has interviewed a fair share of international writers, including, in addition to those listed above, Nuruddin Farah and Marjane Satrapi. The World Within provides instant access to the most engaging dialogue the magazine has generated, and one cannot finish it without hoping the release of volume two will come quickly.