In this frank interview with The Compulsive Reader, Loubna Haikal talks about the migrant experience, about the nameless main character of her novel Seducing Mr Maclean, the research she did for the book, about writing with a Lebanese accent, the Varuna fellowship, racism, the media, and returning to Lebanon.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: What prompted the writing of Seducing Mr Maclean?
Haikal: For a long time I had been looking for a way to write about the migration experience exploring themes such as loss, survival, morality, power, seduction, compromise and identity. The absence of literature or any material written on such topics, from the Lebanese-Australian point of view, was worrying to me and contributed to a kind of isolation and feeling that the loneliness, confusion, grief… that I was experiencing as a migrant, were pathological. I felt that the opportunity to reflect on such experiences in literature would have validated mine and contributed to the healing process. I felt the intense urge and almost panic to write about that journey lest it disappeared and became forgotten in a society where forgetting was part of the culture. Also I wanted to write with the migrant voice, by using the English language but keeping the Lebanese accent to convey the cultural subtext and the folklore. So I constructed the main character, the narrator, as the foreigner, the young Lebanese girl, the new comer who brings the goods from the old culture and tries to set them up as the currency for survival in the new culture. She negotiates their worth in exchange for acceptance and a new home. I also introduced the character of Mr Maclean as a metaphor for the ‘West’, the West that the narrator is trying to seduce in order to fit in.
Magdalena: Tell me about the narrator. Is she based on you and your experiences?
Haikal: Even though the narrator talks about having to spell her name and the difficulty people have saying it, she remains anonymous throughout the story. Her anonymity in the story intensifies her fluidity and ability to slide between the two worlds. As an observer and commentator, she remains benign, invisible, just another migrant girl. I feel that her anonymity increases the identification of the reader with her. While trying to penetrate the new culture, her own culture ceases to make sense. She experiences confusion, a kind of autism, she can’t decipher the world around her, the new language, its subtext, the body language, but nor can the world read her. The emotional journey of the narrator and the environment that she experiences reflect mine in many ways, medical school, restaurants – but the events and the characters in the story don’t.
Magdalena: What do you think the narrator’s future holds? Is the ending of the book a happy one do you think?
Haikal: I would like to answer the second question first. The ending of the book is by no means a definite resolution. It is subject to interpretation. My aim was not to resolve the relationship between Mr Maclean and the narrator, but to open a dialogue about identity, margins, ‘the exotic other’. The ending of the book is a hopeful one, I would not describe it as happy. Hope is somehow more important, it is more dynamic and there is room for change, for discovery, to be inclusive, to blur the margins of difference. The future of the girl will be less tortured by problems of identity hopefully. She no longer needs to seduce the West to belong. She gains through the story a sense of self, of integrity and her future will be based on sound decisions from a position of strength, not on insecurity.
Magdalena: What kind of research did you do for the book?
Haikal: Most of my reading was on cultural theories and stories around colonialism, migration, racism, by authors such as Fanon, Edward Said, Ghassan Hage, Sartre, Du Bois.
Magdalena: Talk to me about some of the big themes of the book ? of migration, and prejudices of all sorts, family, coming of age, etc.
Haikal: I wanted to talk in the story first and foremost about the state of discomfort, physical and emotional, that the migrant girl experienced in the new society, the discomfort of living in two worlds and not being quite at home in either. That discomfort was made worse by the ignorance of the people around her about her own culture, and the stereotypes she had to fight against or, at times, wear through necessity. By ignorance, I don’t mean just lack of information but also mis-information or infomercion. Information driven by certain political agendas, in order to polarise and create insecurities, tensions and justify certain policies that would not be accepted otherwise under normal circumstances. I wanted to include misrepresentation by the media and how that affects public opinion and the feeling of impotence of the individual against generalisations made by the the establishment; media, politicians and other officials.
The vulnerability of migrants, their need to survive, to succeed, to be accepted, to be seen as successful can become points of entry for the exploitation by the world of corruption that recognises no cultural barriers and by the new world where the rules of the game are unknown and confusing. I wanted to present a story about stereotypes that became caricatures as they developed their three dimensional state and experienced conflicts and tensions in their daily lives.My aim was to subvert the stereotype and expose the reader to the pernicious nature of stereotyping. How it can become the easy way of solving a problem, but in the long run, the dangerous way. The image that is created about someone can be the most destructive weapon towards that individual and his community and it removes all hope for harmony and cultural understanding. The narrator was faced with all that as well as passing her exams.
War was also a topic. How we describe war and how the media classifies people into either victims or aggressors. If by any chance one is labelled ‘the aggressor’, then all acts of retaliation against that individual would become legitimate. I wanted to explore power at all level, cultural, sexual-cultural, First world vs Third world and how that fits into our misconceptions and prejudices towards one another, and as importanly, the commodification of migrants, how far are they allowed to feel as participants in change and challenge the status quo.
Finally, I wanted to talk about human nature and look at similarities rather than differences and work from the premise that we all belong to the same world.
Magdalena: In the book, many Australians, like Robby’s parents, are openly racist,and ignorance of other countries and cultures seems to abound. Do you think that things have changed, or does Australia still have a long way to go before it really embraces multiculturalism.
Haikal: Again, here I feel this is more a problem of being misinformed rather than of ignorance. I think people now are more reliant on the media for a ‘quick info fix’ about other cultures. Unfortunately the media is never without an agenda. That is why, literature, theatre and the Arts are an important way of transmitting many aspects of one’s culture and subverting and challenging media constructed stereotypes. It is crucual to give artists of non-Anglo-Celtic background, the space to express their view of the world. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot change in that sort of space. In a way we have created a token multicultural society, where works of the so-called ‘artists of ethnic origin’ remain marginalised and don’t occupy the space of mainstream Art. We need visionaries to lead us out of this insecure state where we are driven to mistrust difference. The Middle-Eastern appearance or the ‘Arab look’ has been groomed for a long time, to become par excellence, the enemy of the free world. The repercussions of the demonisation of the ‘Arab look’ are far and wide; marginalisation of Arabic speaking communities, ill-treatment of refugees, discrimination in the work place, restriction of freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular. As an Arab-Australian, it is so unfortunate to grow up with such a vision of oneself. Change can happen quickly, but we need a change of heart first.
Magdalena: Have there been other Australian novels written from a migrant’s perspective which have inspired you?
Haikal: I have not come across any Australian novels that have challenged me and confronted me with the sort of issues that I had to face when I was trying to adjust to the Australian way of life. They have not talked to me from beyond the safety of political correctness.
Magdalena: This is your first novel. Was it difficult to get it published? What process did you go through?
Haikal: It was more difficult to get an agent than a publisher. Writing with a Lebanese accent and with the Lebanese oral story-telling style of hyperbolae and to-ing and fro-ing in time and space made people unsure about the literary merit of my work. I was advised to take up creative writing classes to learn about style, structure and characterisation. I suppose there is a format for writing for agents, publishers and for the literary class, but there should be room to challenge the format and write in a way that is truthful to the story and the voice. Breaking the mould, working against the format causes discomfort in the reader who then wants to correct the language and the structure to transport the story into their own comfort zone. But reading should be like entering a new world where we sometimes experience a kind of migration away from the familiar. The challenge for me was not to accept the advise of the experts and change the language and the structure, but to stick to my belief and continue in my search for understanding and an agent who would connect with my writing.
Magdalena: Tell me about the Varuna Writers’ Fellowship.
Haikal: The Varuna Fellowship came at the right time. As I was feeling isolated and unrecognised, the call came from Varuna’s Peter Bishop to tell me that he loved the manuscript, its gusto and freshness. That was the best reward. It re-inforced my belief in my own way of writing. The time I spent at Varuna was a turning point in my writing career. I began to acknowledge myself as a writer. The Fellowship gave my writing cudos and allowed the manuscript to make that crucial leap onto the publisher’s desk.
Magdalena: Tell me about some of the stories you wrote and the film you made before Seducing Mr Maclean.
Haikal: I have written a collection of short stories on topics such as dislocation (My mother the carmelite, Olives and thyme, The story of Abe), love and possession(The psychiatrist, Making Kibbi), loss(The effect of James on the light in Kensington Park), parenting(The visit, the smack and the bed-wetter), deceit(The Plumber), death(Uncle Iliah’s funeral), self destruction(When the day was over, Shining in suburbia), freedom(Passion).
The short film I made was about image, pretence and seduction, the game people play and the masks they wear to seduce. I wanted to explore deceit and the destruction of that image. Making the film, particularly the editing process, helped my writing and removed the element of self indulgence that takes away from the narrative drive. So even though the final product of the film was not to my satisfaction, it was a very useful exercise towards improving my writing.
Magdalena: You went back to Lebanon briefly, but didn’t stay. Was it difficult to go back?
Haikal: I went back to Lebanon twice. The first time was during the war, fifteen years after coming to Australia. Even though Lebanon was in ruins, I couldn’t wait to get there. Australia had seemed an imposed exile. It was so necessary for me to go back and place myself in that setting, to reunite with what I had lost. I went back during the war because I felt that to deserve the benefits of the Lebanese culture, I had to physically go through what my people in Lebanon were enduring. I had felt like a traitor calling myself Lebanese and not being in Lebanon when it needed me most. The difficulty afterwards was realising that the war was senseless and witnessing the destruction of the places where I grew up. It became clear that the aim of that war was not to solve differences but to destroy the country, its infra-structure, its multi-cultural nature. I felt a sense of hopeless despondency, like a failure, but I didn’t want to become another statistic in a war that was created by external forces. I had to leave to regain a perspective on how best to contribute to peace in Lebanon and rebuild a most beautiful country.
Magdalena: Tell me about what you’re working on now? Is there another novel in the works?
Haikal: I am working on another novel at the moment. It is still at the stage of conception and I fear that talking about it will dissipate the momentum to write it.