By Youssef Fadel
Spring, 1990. After years of searching in vain, a stranger passes a scrap of paper to Zina. It’s fro…Read more
Award-winning Moroccan novelist and screenwriter Youssef Fadel was born in Casablanca in 1949. During Morocco’s ‘Years of Lead’ he was imprisoned in the notorious Moulay Cherif prison (1974–75). He is the author of A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me (translated by Alexander E. Elinson, Hoopoe, 2019), A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me (translated by Alexander Elinson, Hoopoe, 2016) and A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me (translated by Jonathan Smolin, Hoopoe, 2016). He lives in Casablanca. We spoke to him about life under the pandemic and how it is affecting his writing.
How have you been spending your days under the pandemic lockdown in Casablanca, your hometown?
In the morning I write, almost four hours, every day, with or without the Covid–19 lockdown. The rest of the day I paint, read, or watch TV. Or do nothing at all—just fiddling my thumbs while contemplating a universe that is sinking. Painting has always been part of my life, like a dream. At the age of sixteen I passed the Casablanca School of Fine Arts entry exam but in the end did not enroll. I also like to play soccer.
You are able to write every single day?
Yes, I write every day. Besides, I rarely go out for a walk or for coffee. And even then, I am busy with what I write. I spend more time thinking about what I am are going to put on paper than actually writing. It’s also more emotionally demanding. I think this is the most important part of the writing process. It’s something that sticks to you the deeper you go into your work.
Has the reality of the pandemic impacted your writing?
I wrote a short text that I sent to the newspaper. It’s about first impressions of life and death and ideas that have been shattered by the current pandemic. It’s hard for me to write about things while they are still happening. I need some retrospective distance from which I can better understand things and events.
What is the latest novel you’ve written?
One of my last novels The Life of the Butterflies was published in February by al-Mutawassit. It is always difficult to start a novel. It’s like standing in front of a pit, feeling unable to go further, asking myself what is the use of one novel more or one novel less, and a sharp feeling of having failed from the start. If I write, it’s to keep myself busy. Is this a consolation? I started drafting a new novel a few months ago. It’s always a challenging moment, especially with this sense of helplessness when faced with small and bigger upheavals.
Do you think this climate of uncertainty can be conducive for a writer like yourself?
Doubt and uncertainty are always with me now. It is the first time that death has taken on a concrete aspect, in faces, gestures, and words. We are all in the same boat, all equal before death, which was previously more distant and abstract. Now we suddenly realize that we are living with it. Every day we count our dead, as on a battlefield. We also count the survivors, those whom death awaits on a street corner, on a doorknob, or in the sight of a passerby.
How are you staying connected with your friends and other authors?
My meetings with friends are rare, actually very rare. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I mostly use the phone. Besides, over time, space shrinks. The list of acquaintances and friends is becoming increasingly meager. We move in a confined space that becomes more and more compact as the city grows. We learn every day to strip away a part of ourselves until there is nothing left.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading various books. I go from rigorous readings like [the French philosopher Michel de] Montaigne . . . to less rigorous but also fascinating stories, by authors such as John Fonte . . . . I usually read around the subject I am working on, but that is not the case now. I don’t know why.
What is the one thing you wish to do the most when they lift the lockdown in Morocco?
I want go to the north of Morocco. I have a house there, by the sea. That is where I feel the best and it is where I like to meet up with family and the few friends who can travel to this lost corner.