Mischa Hiller, Author of “Sabra Zoo” and “Disengaged,” Talks to the Square

“I am a British citizen by birth and I describe myself, if I have to, as being of English and Palestinian descent, which is technically accurate. I like to move between these two (or ignore them both) depending on which layer or facet of myself I am showing,” Mischa Hiller wrote in a contribution to the collection “Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home.” Hiller, the author of two novels, several short stories and essays, was born in England and grew up in London, Beirut, Lebanon, and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania.

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His affecting debut novel “Sabra Zoo” told the story of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre through the eyes of a Danish-Palestinian teenager, Ivan, living in Beirut. The Guardian praised the novel as a “stunning, defiant debut” and it won the Commonwealth Writer’s 2011 First Book award (Europe and South Asia region). Hiller also won the 2009 European Independent Film Festival script competition for the screenplay adaptation of “Sabra Zoo.”

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His second novel “Shake Off” is a fast-paced, spy thriller set in 1989 London as a young Palestinian agent, Michel, haunted by the personal memory of the ’82 massacre, strives to keep one step ahead of Israeli agents. “Shake Off” was selected as one of the “Best Books of 2012” by The New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell wrote “the book absolutely blew me away…Hiller’s novel has the benefit of mining every trope of the thriller genre while being absolutely original at the same time.” While The Economist lauded the book as, “Powerful and thought-provoking, this is a book that stays with the reader. Mr Hiller’s ‘Shake Off’ is hard to shake off.”

Both novels explore the sense of dislocation Palestinians living in diaspora often experience. And, in the case of “Sabra Zoo,” the experience of a half-European, half-Palestinian character who is able to “move between these two,” is very much Hiller’s own. Recently, we spoke via e-mail with Hiller.

Why cast Palestinians as protagonists? You write in “Onions and Diamonds” (published in the collection “Seeking Palestine” by Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson) that no one should feel compelled to write out of sense of identity, but what compels you as an English-Palestinian to convey the Palestinian experience?

“It was more a calculated decision to make the protagonist of “Shake Off” Palestinian than it was with “Sabra Zoo,” which is a novel based loosely on my own experiences. After writing “Sabra Zoo” I decided to write a thriller, and I wanted it to have a Palestinian protagonist because I had never read a thriller told from that perspective. They say that you should write the book that you want to read, which is sound advice. Incidentally, my new novel “Disengaged” (to be published in the US on May 1st 2015) does not feature any Palestinian characters, nor do my short stories, so I do not feel compelled to always have them as protagonists.”

In the aforementioned essay, you wrote that diaspora Palestinians are dispossessed rather than in exile. Both your characters in “Sabra Zoo” and “Shake Off” appear, to quote Edward Said, “out of place.” Ivan and Michel are in a constant state of movement. People in exile often find a new permanent home and many Palestinians have, but are you writing with an eye toward the constant dislocation that Palestinians often find themselves in?

“Exile could imply a voluntary act (dispossession does not) and one must be exiled from somewhere. My point in the essay is that Palestine does not exist as it used to – it is Palestine that is in the process of being dispossessed from Palestinians (not the other way round) through more settlements and land grabs. Palestine is being diminished for the Palestinians that live there, never mind those in exile. Dislocation is a good word because it means a disturbance, a shift from what is normal. So although many Palestinians have found new homes, or more likely been born into them, that feeling of dislocation is always inescapably present. So yes, that is reflected in the books.”

The Sabra and Shatila Massacre is a central element in “Sabra Zoo” and “Shake Off”? As an author, what about the massacre makes it salient to the Palestinian experience? Why not write a novel around the Nakba, which is widely recognized as the defining experience for Palestinians?

“It is no more or less important than any other tragic milestone in the Palestinian experience. I wrote about it because it was personally relevant to me and therefore something I needed to deal with as a writer. Why didn’t I write about the Nakba? Sabra and Shatila is the Nakba. The latest assault on Gaza is the Nakba. The Nakba happens every day, it is an ongoing process, not just something that took place in 1948.”

In the short story “2000 Terrorists”, the protagonist is an Israeli soldier affected by what he senses is a massacre going on nearby and the indifference of his commanding officers, and in the closing scene reflects on Jewish suffering in relation to the suffering in front of him. Why write the massacre from the vantage point of an Israeli soldier?

“To answer your question with a question: why not write it from the point of view of an Israeli soldier? As a writer you want to examine situations from all perspectives, even ones you may find difficult to empathise with. You ask yourself, as writer, ‘what if?’ What if I was an Israeli conscript stationed outside Sabra and Shatila in 1982? I wanted to imagine what that might be like for a human being who finds himself on the wrong side of history.”

In “Shake Off”, Michel simultaneously identifies with a Jewish boy from the Holocaust and resents him for making his own tragedy less unique. Historical narratives of tragedy and suffering often exclude similar episodes or, at least, rank them as lesser evils. What role do you believe writers in broadening national narratives toward a universal compassion?

“Surely it must be one of fiction’s primary roles, to universalize the particular. We all think our tragedies and suffering are unique, and in some respects they are – what is happening to Palestinians cannot be compared or equated to what happened to Jews for instance. This is not to diminish what is happening to the Palestinians; the facts speak for themselves. But comparing and contrasting these things is academic and besides the point. Having said that, there are striking similarities at an individual level, which is what Michel stumbles upon in Shake Off. We should be exploring why these things continue to happen. Dehumanization of the ‘other’ is an unfortunate universal trait, usually borne from a warped sense of nationalism or tribalism, so it is something we all need to consciously guard against.”

Lastly, literature is read in a larger context of culture and politics and how seriously the literature is considered and the public meaning of the text is shaped by that context. As a UK-based writer where public opinion is quite sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, how do you perceive the reception toward your novels?

“The reaction to my work has been overwhelmingly positive, and the reviews have been gratifying! But the most gratification I get comes from individual readers, particularly from the US, who email me to thank me for bringing a hitherto invisible Palestinian perspective to their attention. These are not politicised readers, who might pick up “Shake Off” because it features a Palestinian. They are readers picking up a thriller and being surprised at what it tells them about the world. What more can a writer can ask for?”

We asked Hiller, So, my first question: what is your connection to Palestine? And how have you understood this heritage over the years?

This, of course, was a hefty question and Hiller’s response was understandable,

“I’d left the first question to last but haven’t really got time to do it justice so I’m afraid it is unanswered.”81etXKKhxzL

Hiller lives in London and his forthcoming book, “Disengaged,” was recently published in the UK and will be available May 2015 in the US.

Interview and article by Khelil Bouarrouj.