The writer Najwan Darwish’s first volume of poetry will be published by The New York Review of Books next year. He talks to Jessica Holland about the Palestinian literary event, PalFest, and his job there as an adviser – which he says can involve work that even interns refuse to do.
Writers from across the world, including the British sci-fi writer China Miéville and the South African novelist Gillian Slovo, travelled to the Palestine Territories last week to take part in the sixth annual PalFest, a nine-day literary event across five cities in the Occupied West Bank, within the Green Line and in Gaza, that ends on Friday.
Among the many Palestinian writers attending is the Jerusalem-based poet and journalist Najwan Darwish, who was selected in 2009 as one of Hay Festival Beirut’s 39 best Arab writers under the age of 39. Darwish has written five books so far, and the first volume of his poetry to be available in English will be published by The New York Review of Books next year. We talked to him after PalFest’s opening night party as he queued at a checkpoint in Ramallah on his way home to Jerusalem.
Why is PalFest important?
We feel that some kind of festival is necessary for us, as Palestinians living under occupation. At the same time, it is necessary for writers from abroad, whose information about Palestine is coming through the media, which, in my opinion, is not so accurate. It is a very special experience for a writer who’s busy with the idea of justice and the human struggle. Writing is about conscience. Palestine is a place where the human conscience can be examined.
You have said that “writing can only be an act of resistance”.
Writing is not a luxury – in any part of the world. Writing is an essential, existential need. In Palestine, doing a literary festival is a sort of going out of the text of occupation because the reality we are living is designed in such a way that you can’t think even of a literary life.
It is something that would sound absurd to the people who are under siege, like in Gaza – doing a literary festival requires some bravery. And at the same time, doing a quality literary festival that will attract great writers from around the world is a real challenge. It’s not just about making it a political festival.
As well as a guest, you are PalFest’s literary adviser. What does this involve?
It’s not a job, it’s a sort of contribution to the festival. Officially, it says literary adviser, but in reality we do everything. Even the things that some interns refuse to do, we advisers do them. We are living under occupation and our life is not like your standard life. It’s an unusual kind of literary festival.
How did you become a poet?
A poet is one who tries to do everything, and he fails in everything. So he becomes a poet. [Laughs.]
What drives you to write?
If I knew the answer, I would find those reasons and stop writing. We write because we don’t know those reasons.
Is it impossible to be a Palestinian writer and not engage with politics?
I don’t think that there is a writer on Earth who could keep away from politics, and my definition of politics is not the news and the media. Politics is the life of people and what affects them. So, in my opinion, every writer is a political writer. But I don’t consider myself an activist; I don’t think of a political message when I write literature. If I had something direct and clear to talk about, I would express myself through articles.
English-speaking countries aren’t big on poetry in translation, so the forthcoming New York Review of Books volume is a big achievement.
The funny thing is that every poet in this New York Review of Books series is dead; I am the only one alive, so my challenge now is to live long after publishing the book. The youngest one in the series [previously] was 85 years old, and she died one day before signing the contract. So I’m really happy that I already signed the contract [laughs].
Why should people have poetry in their lives?
One of my first encounters with poetry was when I spent an evening in a graveyard in Jerusalem, and I noticed a lot of poems written on the graves, and I thought to myself, poetry is the deepest human expression. I still think that. My deepest thoughts, I could only [express] in poetry.
The Palestine Festival of Literature 2013 continues in Gaza City, Haifa, Jerusalem, Nablus and Ramallah until Friday. Visit www.palfest.org