Sunday Salon: “Creating Compelling Literary Characters”

On the weekend of March 7-9, I went to quite a few sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Today, I’m going to write about what I heard (and learned) at a session called “Creating Compelling Literary Characters: Good, Evil and Lolita’s Fingers”.

Find out how, in both Ashes of the East and his latest novel Lolita’s Fingers, renowned author Waciny Laredj engages with the struggle between good and evil and the creation of compelling characters. 

Although the topic of this session was ostensibly the creation of compelling characters, it really ended up being more of a general talk about Laredj’s background and his writing. He spoke about his upbringing in Algeria in a very unprivileged and poor area, and how he would smuggle tomatoes and oranges into the country from Morocco. He talked also about the transfer of duties in his family and how that affected his upbringing: how his father was not there, so his mother replaced his father, and his grandmother replaced his mother. He spoke about how his grandmother was adamant that he learned Arabic for “his identity”, and how Arabic became the language of his soul, his spirit, instead of the language of his background. Laredj acquired Arabic by working hard for it, and so he wants to preserve that feeling. He said that he feels comforted when writing in Arabic instead of in French. He began writing about his daily heroes, such as his mother, father, and grandmother. He said that the spirit of his novels is taken from the stories that his grandmother told him as a child.

Laredj said that authors shouldn’t work on reconstructions of history because then they will become bad historians as well as bad novelists. He said that, in France, “we area always talking about constitutions and we forget that freedom can be more than just about the commercial sense”. He pointed out that women cannot be free when they are dressed in stringent Victorian style, for example.

The moderator said that Laredj has lived on the borders of two countries and doesn’t write conventional novels, biographies, or histories. In response, he said that the concept of “border” is a restriction that has been imposed on us. Laredj said that when you live between borders you must comply with the decisions of a regime, and that he has a desire to transcend these borders imposed on us. He spoke about “escaping” from the French language to the Arabic language in his writing.

Laredj spoke about writing through the metaphor of building. He said that you can give builders the same materials but you will not get the same building, because it’s not about the materials or the tools that you have. He said that if it were up to him, he would only work on confused or mystical characters, that there is a fine line between good and evil.

At the end, an audience member commented that Laredj had been the only author to mention International Women’s Day the previous evening (in another talk I was in), and asked how he relates to the women in his life. Laredj said that he was raised in an environment surrounded by women. His village was evacuated of men – through immigration and martyrdom in the Algerian revolution – and that he built a certain bond of relationship and sympathy with women. He also commented that he has a certain “feminine aspect” in his personality, a feeling of belonging. Laredj said that macho rhetoric is an empty thing that he doesn’t believe in, that he doesn’t understand fanatics. In his words, “how can you hate your mother, your lover, your sister, those who gave you life? God created us but through a means, a woman.” He said that he sees women as a very integral aspect in our lives.

I haven’t read any of Laredj’s books before, but I’m looking forward to finding an English translation of one soon. Have you read anything he’s written that you can recommend?

1 thought on “Sunday Salon: “Creating Compelling Literary Characters””

  1. The talk sounds fascinating! His life sounds apt for a memoir itself, though the topics discussed have me thinking he must have written some great stories. Interesting what he said about authors and reconstructing history. Great post 🙂

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