Following the journey of a young boy in search of his missing Lebanese father, we speak to author Pierre Jarawan about his highly acclaimed latest novel, “The Storyteller.”
What was it like growing up in Germany with Lebanese heritage?
I was always proud to be half-Lebanese and half-German. In school, I was the only child who would eat Arabic bread in the schoolyard, so I made everybody jealous. I think I got the best of both worlds; my mother is German, my father Lebanese, so I got to know both cultures, and we went on holiday to Lebanon almost every year. But I also know that this has been a privilege. I know other people my age whose parents were fully Lebanese. They found it much harder to adapt to their new environment, to embrace a new culture and learn the language. When I think back, being half-Lebanese made me exotic but not a stranger. Today, when I work with refugees here, I sometimes tell them my parents’ stories and that they left Lebanon because of the war.
Have you always felt a strong connection to Lebanon?
Oh, yes! When I was a child, we visited the country many times. And even when I grew older and did not travel to Lebanon every year, I never lost the emotional connection. Growing up also meant reading more about the history and questioning the idea of it being a “perfect country,” which is what I had always thought as a kid.
What made you decide to write “The Storyteller”?
I started writing poems and short stories when I was 13 years old. But it was only when I turned 30 that I realized I was most capable of talking the thing closest to me: my identity and this identity, of course, is also connected to Lebanon. I did not want to write my personal story, which would have been too boring for most readers. I wanted to write a fictional story about a family torn between two countries – but from a personal point of view. When I started writing, I did not intend to write so much about Lebanon’s history and politics, but then again I realized very early on that in Lebanon basically everything is related to politics, so I spent a further two years doing research before I finally wrote the novel.
Getting people interested in Lebanon, a beautiful and troubled country is probably the most amazing thing.
The novel’s main character, Samir, has a special bond with his father, a brilliant storyteller. Did your father tell you stories when you were younger?
Yes, he did. My father invented his own bedtime stories for us, and I am sure he had a big impact on my writing in general.
How much of the book mirrors your own experiences?
Well, the story is fictional: everything that keeps the story moving, everything that happens to the characters. But, of course, I am drawing from personal experiences when it comes to emotions. I know how to describe Samir’s longing for Lebanon because I longed for Lebanon when I was a child.
You just finished a promotional tour of the US. How was it?
It was kind of surreal. Never in my life would I have imagined being invited to the US with my book. But I ended up visiting 26 cities in six weeks, reading from the book. It was amazing, but it was also very strenuous and tiring. Nonetheless, it was interesting to talk to American readers about Lebanon. I showed them pictures and explained a little bit about the political system etc. All in all it was an experience I will never forget.
What would you say was the greatest challenge in writing “The Storyteller”? What has been the biggest reward?
To be honest, it did not feel challenging when I wrote it. This book came from my heart; writing it was pure joy and I loved every minute of it. Looking at the novel’s structure, the greatest challenge was probably to fit 30 years of Lebanese history without teaching readers a lesson. I wanted the historical sections to be part of the story itself and of the characters’ journeys. The biggest reward has been the way in which “The Storyteller” has changed my life. I am now able to be a full-time writer. I dreamed of being a writer since I was 13 years old. Moreover, the letters and emails I’ve received from readers have been so enriching. Many readers didn’t know anything about Lebanon before they read the book, and I had some readers who traveled to Beirut after reading it. They sent me pictures of themselves with my novel while standing on the Corniche. Getting people interested in Lebanon, a beautiful and troubled country is probably the most amazing thing.
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“The Storyteller” is available online and Librairie Antoine branches across Lebanon.