Arts + Culture

Hisham Matar’s The Return: Touching Bottom in an Ocean of Grief

This memoir of returning to Libya after the fall of Gaddafi will absolutely break your heart. It is also really really good. Read it.

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance.” —The Return


You don’t need to read Hisham Matar’s novels before reading his just-published memoir about looking for his father in Libya. The Return stands on its own: it’s one of the most perfectly and precisely executed personal memoirs I’ve ever read. The back cover is filled with the usual glowing blurbs and lavish praise, but they’re all true: it’s an absolute masterpiece.

It manages to be desperately intimate and personal, heartbreaking and poignant, and yet it’s also “dazzlingly multiple,” as Marcia Lynx Qualey puts it, an infinite history of modern Libya: “memoir, geography, biography, journalism, literary criticism, and dark historical thriller.” It’s a book that looks inward to look outward, a deep-dive into Libya’s literary ocean. Read it. It’s just, you know, very good.

On the other hand, if you have read Matar’s two novels—In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011)—then The Return turns out to be the concluding volume of a trilogy that Matar couldn’t have planned to write, and couldn’t have known he was writing until he did. His two novels are about memory and lost fathers and a childhood spent in Libya that becomes an adulthood in exile; they are the novels that Hisham Matar wrote in the long uncertainty he inherited from his lost father and from memories of his childhood in Libya as he became an adult in exile.

Indeed, his novels are so close to his own life that at one point in The Return—as the two are boarding a plane to Libya—his mother asks a “mischievous question,” as he calls it: “Who’s returning? Suleiman el-Dewani or Nuri el-Alfi?” These are the names of the protagonists of his two novels, fictional versions of Matar himself that—in his mother’s very serious joke—were suddenly brought to life. After a life spent dreaming about return, and in his fiction, trying to imagine the truth of his lost father, The Return is Hisham Matar coming face to face with reality—or trying to—but finding it to be as ambiguous and depthless as any novel, an ocean without a floor.

At its core, the story is simple enough: for two decades, Jaballa Matar’s family lived with the uncertainty of his death, who had been kidnapped—while already in exile—and had been lost in Gaddafi’s prisons ever since. As far as his family knew, he was probably dead, but—without word or confirmation—how could they grieve? Without the truth of his death, how could they stop waiting?

“I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes, in The Return; “I covet the certainty.”

For Hisham Matar, fiction took the place of the knowledge that was denied him: about his father, about his family, and about Libya. “To be Libyan is to live with questions,” as he writes in The Return, and his novels asked these questions: “When I think of what might have happened to him,” he writes, “I feel an abyss open up beneath me.” His novels chart the abyss.

In the Country of Men, his first novel, is the story of a childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya, the bildungsroman of a mind shadowed by dictatorship, born into complicity with a patriarchal patriotism while too young to understand. It is also about how an adult mind tries to make sense of that origin, years later: it is written by the British author and narrator that its protagonist has become, thousands of miles away, after he has become a man and after he has lost his father, to Gaddafi’s security forces.

In other words, it’s Hisham Matar’s own story: born in Libya, Matar fled with his family to Cairo when he was nine—roughly the age of his first novel’s protagonist—and then to Britain, where he has lived ever since. In the Country of Men was the novel he had to write to understand the half-formed understanding he had formed, of himself, as a child; it is about being the son of a father who was destroyed by his own country, and about what’s left afterwards.

Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is the next version of this story, as life moved forward: after a childhood in Libya, it gives us the family in exile, as a son struggles to re-discover the father who was abducted by security forces; instead of a child, it is the adult life as constructed out of absence and loss. If In the Country of Men was an anatomy of childhood, then Anatomy of a Disappearance is a young man trying to imagine how he could grow older himself, and who—in the absence of a father—he could become.

And then, in 2011, the reality changed. The Return is the book that Hisham Matar could only write after Gaddafi was dead and after the prisons opened up: it is the book he could only write once his father—and the fatherland that Gaddafi had made Libya to be—were in the ground. And so, it serves as a kind of punctuation mark to the writer he had been. After decades trying to fill the abyss with fiction, The Return is the book he wrote about putting his own feet in the water. Suddenly, it wasn’t Suleiman el-Dewani or Nuri el-Alfi that was returning: it was Hisham Matar.

The irony of The Return, however—an irony poignant and devastating and real—is that art can create a shape and a structure and even a kind of narrative out of a world that will never provide it, or allow it; there is an aesthetic satisfaction from Matar’s novels that The Return cannot provide, because reality is not nearly so simple.

When the prisons are opening and his father is not found, hope becomes impossible: “it was clear” he says, “for the first time, the truth became inescapable…it was clear that he had been shot or hanged or starved or tortured to death.”

This is what is clear, and all that is clear: the one thing that can be known is that it was one of these many things, an endless series of this, or this, or this, or this. Or something else…

Despite the promise of the title (and the window of optimism for a post-Gaddafi Libya that infused the time of Matar’s visit in 2012), The Return is ultimately about its impossibility, something all the more devastating if you never fully left. After a lifetime as a Libyan in London, The Return reveals a Hisham Matar who turns out to be British. In one of the most cutting exchanges in the book, David Miliband “placed his hand on my shoulder”:

“So tell me,” he said. “Are you British now?”

“Yes.”

“Good man. Excellent. So you’re one of us.”

Was he patronizing me? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was the genuine warm confederacy of a fellow Brit. Or maybe it was the impatient, political, bullying pragmatism of power towards a person of mixed identities, a man whose preoccupations do not fit neatly inside the borders of one country, and so perhaps what Miliband was really saying was, “Come on, you’re British now; forget about Libya.

There is no love lost between Matar and the UK Labour party that embraced and helped to rehabilitate Gaddafi’s reputation, in the waning years of his regime—and some of the best parts of the book are Matar’s long campaign against this rehabilitation—but it can be easy to miss the unambiguous “Yes” with which Matar answers the question. His return to Libya is not the return of a lost son, but the return that confirms the impossibility of return: after a lifetime of Libyan exile in Britain, his return to Libya finds him a stranger, fatherless in his fatherland. He is as British in Libya as he is Libyan in the UK; for such a person, return is not the end of exile, but the confirmation of its permanence.

In this way, the book is the funeral oration for a father who was a proud and unambiguous patriot—who was born, lived, and died in Libya—and part of what Matar lost with his father was the pride that was his father’s most salient feature, the lost nationalism and refusal to bend of a generation that was killed by Gaddafi, and which is not recovered. Burying his father means turning the page on a light that was snuffed out, on a generation’s postcolonial dreams—which The Return lovingly dwells on—that never came to fruition.

And yet, this is not pessimism, not despair, and not surrender; elsewhere, Matar has spoken of the Arab revolt of 2011—across the region—as the recovery of pride and self-determination (whatever the short term outcome). 2011 was the beginning of something, and the beginning has not yet ended. And so, for all the sadness and grief of a memoir of a father that was never found, who can only have died in 1996, The Return is about a legacy of grief lifting. Funerals do not heal grief, but they do, at last, end. The Return is a funeral, an old repetitive story that ends, and about the promise that soon, someday, there will be something novel. Funerals are where patriotism burns away, when what is left behind is love, and a willingness to live again, after grief.

Aaron Bady is a writer and recovering academic in Oakland, CA. Check out aaronbady.com and follow him on Twitter @zunguzungu.

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Nnedi Okorafor attends the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Binti' Is Being Developed Into a TV Series at Hulu

The award-winning novella is coming to a screen near you.

Binti, the acclaimed book by award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, is being adapted into a TV series, set to premiere on Hulu. The Hollywood Reporter was the first to break the news.

The three-part, science fiction novella will be adapted for screen under the studio Media Res. The script is being written by both Okorafor and writer Stacy Osei-Kuffour, who has previously written for Watchmen and The Morning Show amongst others.

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Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

These 10 books have both shifted and unearthed new narratives within South Africa's literary world.

A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.


This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

Matlwa's third novel Period Pain honestly pulls apart the late Nelson Mandela's idea of a rainbow nation and non-racialism. Through the central character Masechaba, the reader is shown the reality of a country still stuck in the clenches of racism and inequality. Xenophobia, crime and the literal death sentence that is the public health system are all issues Matlwa explores in the novel. It's both a visceral account of the country from the vantage point of a Black person without the privileges and comforts of a White person as well as a heartfelt story about how even the most broken continue to survive. It's the story of almost every Black person in South Africa and that that story is even told to begin with, and told honestly, is important.

"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

Msimang's memoir details her political awakening while abroad as well as her return to a South Africa on the cusp of democracy. Hers is not an ordinary account of Apartheid South Africa and its aftermath but rather a window into yet another side—the lives of South Africans living in exile and more so, what happens when they eventually return home. Admittedly, it's an honest account of class and privilege. Msimang describes the tight-knit sense of community built between families who were in exile and acknowledges that many of them came back to South Africa with an education—something of which South Africans living in the country were systematically deprived. It is an important addition to the multitude of stories of Apartheid-era South Africa, the transition into democracy and the birth of the so-called "born-free" generation.

"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.

Interview
Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication, in Kampala, on April 10, 2017. (Photo by GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Jailed Ugandan Activist, Stella Nyanzi, Wins PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression

The outspoken activist, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem she wrote about the president's mother's vagina, won for her resistance "in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her."

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution."

Nyanzi is currently serving a 15 month sentence for "cyber harassment" after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."

According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. "For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," said Torner at the award ceremony.

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