An interview with Brian Kiteley in The Bloomsbury Review, Jan/Feb 1997,
conducted by Paul Bennett
The Bloomsbury Review: I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing is a subtle book, with little in the way of plot to satisfy popular taste. Instead, it seems to be a novel about people--their ideas, traits, and passions. In your mind, what is the book about?
Brian Kiteley: One of the early titles of the book was Man Lost in Translation, which describes one of the aspects of the book that interests me very much. In the book there is a reference to Salman Rushdie's introduction to Shame, in which he says that everyone agrees that something is always lost in translation, but Rushdie himself--or rather the character in his novel--feels that he is a living example of something that has been gained in the translation. I'm interested in both ends of the equation.
The Bloomsbury Review: Translation in the very strict sense of the word? Or perhaps more in the sense of culture, cultural translation?
Brian Kiteley: Translation in every sense of the word. Translation from language to language, but also from mind to mind. The idea I had for this novel was fairly simple in some ways. It was about friendship and the way friendship is a translation of personalities and a presentation of selves. This book became for me an interesting issue of how two characters present themselves to each other: what work goes on in that process--in any process, no matter what the culture--but especially in a situation like this, where there are two different cultures at work.
The Bloomsbury Review: And in this case, these "friends" are actually strangers.
Brian Kiteley: Yes. But gradually they become friends of a sort. After one night, what kind of friendship can be born? However, many friendships in my life have been born in an evening.
The Bloomsbury Review: Stylistically, the dialogue between these two friends is very strained and surreal. How does their communication lend itself to their relationship?
Brian Kiteley: I was also interested in a narrator whose narration is taken over by another narrator. The name Ib was key to this idea, and it became an important and peculiar marker for me; it seemed more like a pronoun than a proper noun. And I like that effect, the fact that it is halfway between a third-person and a first-person narrator. Or that it is a shade off of the "I" narration. I was very interested in exploring what happens to him, especially as he's a foreigner just returned to Egypt from the U.S. He's reminded of the feeling he had when he first arrived of being completely at sea, selfless and lost--lost in the experience of foreignness, like most travelers, or at least like myself as a traveler.
The Bloomsbury Review: I didn't get the sense of Ib as a traveler. I thought of him more as an expatriate. Perhaps we're using those terms interchangeably.
Brian Kiteley: I traveled while I was in Egypt, and I lived there for two years. And whenever I traveled I felt enormous freedom--both very lonely and giddy in that loneliness. There was also a sense of not existing, but being a pair of eyes.
The Bloomsbury Review: Of absorption?
Brian Kiteley: Yes. We're now about eleven years since that first trip I took to Egypt. I first went there for a month to visit some friends, and then I went back a year and a half later to teach at the American University in Cairo. On the return flight to Egypt I wrote in my journal, "I will not attempt to reason with my observations this trip. They will happen. They will reflect my innocence and ignorance. But what a divine feeling simply to drop my persona, my idiotic tentative commitments, and to become whatever this new old world makes of me."
The Bloomsbury Review: This is somewhat of a paradox, isn't it?
Brian Kiteley: Travel writing tends to be some of the most self-involved and self-indulgent writing, the most solipsistic.
The Bloomsbury Review: But your narrator is not really egotistical or self-indulgent. He may be somewhat solipsistic because so much of the book is about him and his identity, but throughout the novel he is doing exactly as you wrote in your journal: absorbing the experience of Cairo.
Brian Kiteley: I think it's an accident of his character. Ib is silent, more of an observer than an actor, which is kind of an old style of narrator--Jamesian, or from Fitzgerald.
The Bloomsbury Review: Did you look back to James, Fitzgerald, or any other writer when you were writing?
Brian Kiteley: Bowles was a model, maybe: the passive central characters in his books, especially in The Sheltering Sky. I was very aware of reacting against Bowles' way of looking at things too. But I can see that there was a depth there. His portrayal of travelers--secular pilgrims who throw themselves deeper and deeper into the desert of North Africa--there is something like that in Ib, I suppose.
The Bloomsbury Review: The novel is incredibly sensual. I've read a number of reviews that remark on the fact that it takes place during Ramadan, when people are fasting and they are frenetic and out of sorts until evening when they can finally eat--and even then this cycle of fasting and feasting never fully calms this uneasy feeling which lasts all month. You open the story with Ib running around frantic and hungry, and though it ends with a feast that calms and relaxes, the sensuality of the narrative never falters.
Brian Kiteley: One thing I didn't include, and I wish I had, was that during Ramadan--during the day--impure thoughts and sexual behavior of any kind are forbidden. So at night, maybe because everyone tried to put sex out of mind, it became an overpowering urge. Of course, I don't know any of this for a fact, because I was observing Egypt through English, in translations, with American, European, and Euro-Americanized Egyptian friends.
The Bloomsbury Review: I found your writing style to be very compact and seamless. It is a very short book. And it reads almost like poetry, as if every word was chosen with great care, as if you could take a paragraph out, like you might a line from a poem, and use it as an epitaph or prelude. How do you achieve this poesy? How do you write in general?
Brian Kiteley: My approach to writing evolved while working on this book. The first five years of writing, I was rewriting the opening 50 pages, to my chagrin. It wore me down. I constantly lost interest in it. But I couldn't see where else to go. I knew the whole story, pretty much from the beginning. I knew that the novel would last a night. And as I wrote, I discovered that the many different characters were melting into one: Gamal. But I still struggled. Concurrent with this, I started sending off postcards to my friends with little stories on them. I write very small, so I could fit 300 words on each one. At first these were atmospheric explorations. I was trying to recapture Egypt. I felt I had no way of accessing what I thought would be pretty strong memories but which grew weak quickly. At the beginning the stories were careless and fun and an interesting exercise, depending on whom I wrote them to. I practiced writing them in my mind, sometimes for days and even weeks before setting them down on paper. This was a very new way of writing for me. I was doing a lot of the work through the unconscious by writing them down in one sitting and without making changes. At the urging of some of my friends who received these postcards, I started to insert them into the story in sly ways. Then, when I got about halfway through the book, at the point when Gamal begins to recite stories to Ib, I realized that I had a place for a number of these and a reason for their being this length and this strange, dense style. The last half of the book consists of either these postcard stories as stand-alones or patched together into a kind of narrative pattern. I was able to insert a lot more of them into the novel than I had imagined (I wrote some 200 of them, most without any idea they would make their way into the novel).
The Bloomsbury Review: In Songs the city of Cairo acts like a character. It overwhelms your protagonist. It's also a shifting element that has almost a different role in every scene. Cairo is beguiling and causes confusion. What have you drawn upon from your experience to create this portrayal? Are we reading about the real Cairo, or are we read about Brian Kiteley's Yoknapatawpha County?
Brian Kiteley: Unlike Faulkner and Oxford, Mississippi, I do not have a lifetime's intimacy with Egypt. I lived there for two years. I visited on three other occasions for a month at a time. However, I did do a great deal of research on Egypt after I returned. I felt like Darwin, after his five-year voyage on The Beagle. When he returned from that trip, he spent the next few years trying to reconstruct it as he wrote. That was my goal: to become a better observer. In retrospect, I wasn't a terribly good observer while I was there. I didn't have much patience with the city. I didn't know Arabic at all well, but I kept in touch with friends who did know Arabic well. I read voraciously and with great pleasure and followed all sorts of odd leads--into Sufism, travel writing from the 12th and 13th centuries, and the history and religions of the region. I did some reading while I was there, but not much. I had a demanding job and social life.
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