Scholars’ Conversation with Professor Hisham Matar

At our second scholars meeting of the year under the dim light of a humid September afternoon, we all gathered around a Harkness table to discuss Professor Hisham Matar’s latest book, The Return.

Professor Matar is The Weiss International Fellow in Literature and the Arts & Adjunct Associate Professor in the English Department here at Barnard. He has written two other books in addition to the Return, In The Country of Men in 2006, which was shortlisted for the man booker prize among many other awards and The Anatomy of a Disappearance, which reached great acclaim in 2011. His work has been translated into 30 different languages. All of his work focus on exile, whether with fiction or nonfiction and the cultural power it can have on an individual. He is also the founder of the International Artist Series here at Barnard.

 Our conversation began on the topic of one’s homeland, serving as the golden thread of our meandering and remarkable discussion. The Return is a work of literary nonfiction in which Profesor Matar returned to Libya for the first time in 30 years and for the first time since the disappearance of his father. When asked about how he feels about where he is from and what his heritage means to him he responded by explaining that such a thing cannot be articulated; it is a feeling, not a collection of words. This served to be a theme throughout our group deliberation of what it means to be from somewhere and how that identity related back to his book and all that it means to him.

 We also explored the singularity in which this text exists. It is a work of autobiographical literary non-fiction considering the Libya, Egypt, London, New York, family, art, history, culture, news, dissent, protest, patriotism and all concrete and abstract concepts in between. Professor Matar also spoke to the unique position of author and what implications it has. He spoke of how all of his books have started with “a feeling” and about the “beautiful failure” of language, the medium with which he has spent his life working in. He explained that with language you can never truly name the thing, otherwise it would be considered a “tyrannical gesture” of sorts. In short, author is not authority.

 The different ways in which this book manifested itself occurred to Professor Matar as a “natural occurrence of knowledge” there was no impressing to be done. The beauty of the text is that there exists no such barrier between man and art, something that Professor Matar expressed about himself and that he needed to “foster this appetite” for the purpose of the book. Julie prompted us all to consider to restrictions and barriers that exist for people to such art, to which Professor Matar responded saying that we cannot give up and we should be pushing young people to be the opposite of specialists. We should all be exploring everything.

The buzzing coming from Ellen, Paige, second-year scholars and first-year scholars alike was one of curiosity at the text and at the individual we had the chance to hear from first hand about the power of language, writing, and the homeland. It was an inspiring afternoon and one of many to come.

- Ruba Nadar '21'