Author Q&A:
Isabella Hammad

The Parisian (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

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Between two wars and two worlds, while his homeland of Palestine battles for independence, Midhat Kamal tries to find a sense of belonging in this sprawling historical saga by debut author Hammad.  

The Parisian is a fictionalised version of your own family history. Can you help readers unpick where reality ends and fiction begins in the novel? 
I was told stories about my great grandfather, Midhat Kamal, when I was young, and the bare bones of the novel’s plot are taken from those anecdotes. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and “reality” is always already being fictionalised whenever it is transmitted through storytelling. Once I started asking people about Midhat I noticed plenty of discrepancies between their different accounts, and plenty of other things that seemed likely to be inventions. So, from the very beginning, I felt free to select, imagine and fill in the blanks as I liked.

How have family members reacted to the book? Did anything not go down well? 
So far my parents have read the book, and their reactions have been positive. I’m lucky to have a supportive family. In any case, everyone knows it’s a novel and not a biography!

You were born in London and live in New York. Did writing the book help connect you with your heritage or were you always in touch with it? 
Writing this book deepened my understanding of Palestinian history before 1948. It also brought me closer to certain family members, particularly my grandmother, who is an amazing storyteller and loves to talk about the past.

Midhat struggles to reconcile his European sensibilities with the life he’s expected to lead on his return to Palestine. Do you think his story will resonate with young Muslims living in the West today?  
I hope his story will resonate with anyone who has fallen in love with a place that is not where they are from. Like an American who falls in love with Spain, or a Frenchman who is in love with Japan. But I also hope it speaks to anyone who has experienced not feeling at home in a new country – whether as an immigrant or just a visitor – and particularly if they have faced hostility on account of their background or race. In Midhat’s case this is specifically informed by a context of colonialism and European prejudice towards non-white/Western cultures and ethnicities.

You spent a year researching in the Middle East. How did you spend your time? What were the highs and lows of the trip? 
I spent time with family in Amman, in Nablus and then all over the West Bank and Jerusalem, with the odd trips to Haifa and Jaffa. Wadi Rum. Aqaba. Beirut. Highs were the wonderful people I met; lows were the presence of Israeli military occupation forces.

What is the lasting impact of French and British colonisation on Palestine and what should they be doing to right historical wrongs? 
Britain and France’s creation of arbitrary national boundaries across the Middle East, without paying attention to the local inhabitants and their right to self-determination, has resulted in a century of turmoil and oppression. At the very least those countries have an obligation to make sure the modern states they helped create abide by international law and protect human rights.

What are you working on next?
A novel and some short stories.

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