The National Book Award winner offers thoughtful insights on writing in the wake of the American Dirt controversy.

By Seija Rankin
February 25, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
Bloomsbury Publishing

American Dirt

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Colum McCann has made a career out of weaving fascinating, and at times surreal, real-life stories into his novels. Take for example his 2009 behemoth Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award and put him over the edge of household-name author status: The book uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers to explore the many overlapping lives of New York and, ultimately, grapple with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

His newest novel, Apeirogon, uses the same basic fiction-nonfiction concept with a fresh motive that’s apparent from the get-go. McCann was inspired by the friendship between Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, living on opposite sides of the wall in Jerusalem. The two became friends through the group Combatants for Peace — Aramin founded the organization after a seven-year stint in an Israeli jail and Elhanan joined after his 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

Ten years after Smadar’s death, Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot to death by an Israeli soldier, and Elhanan and Aramin began touring the world to tell their stories in hopes of bringing an end to the conflict in the Middle East. McCann weaves their real-life testimonies into his fictionalized storytelling about their lives and inner monologues, as well as dozens of mini-chapters about everything from the migration patterns of birds to Biblical history. The result is a haunting treatise on the region’s painful history.

Apeirogon arrives at an interesting moment. After all, McCann is not from the Middle East; he grew up in Ireland and currently resides in New York City. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the buzzy American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican family’s migration to the U.S. written by the Spanish-born Jeanine Cummins, debates over who has the permission to tell which stories have intensified. At the American Dirt backlash’s height (around the time Flatiron Books canceled Cummins’ book tour), it felt appropriate to brace for impact. Public reaction is unpredictable. But McCann’s beautifully and sensitively written Apeirogon actively works to not sensationalize the crisis of the Middle East. Where American Dirt has drawn criticism for his commercial thriller construct, Apeirogon is simply tender.

EW spoke to McCann at length about his decision to write this novel, his research process, and what he’s learned about the region and the two protagonists of his novel. Below is the story of Apeirogon in McCann’s own words, as told to EW’s Seija Rankin.

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I’d written a book called Transatlantic, that was largely about the Irish peace process, and I was fascinated by the people who helped us reach across the divide. One in particular was Senator George Mitchell: After he successfully negotiated the Good Friday Agreement he was asked to be a special envoy to the Middle East and he said to me, “If you think Ireland is complicated, you should try the Middle East.” I was fascinated by the region because, frankly, I knew so little about it and had no skin in the game — I’m not Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, or Palestinian. I come from an Irish Catholic background. I do come from a background of war and trauma, but it’s entirely different — so it seemed like [the Middle East] was a way to go in and think about these ideas of war and peace.

I went on a trip to Israel and Palestine five years ago with a group called Telos. We met Rami and Bassam, and it was one of those heart-wrenching moments, when they started talking and I just thought, “Holy moly, this is something else.” I went home and tried to work on another novel, but it didn’t work and I kept thinking about Rami and Bassam. I just thought, “Okay, if that’s the heart of it, then that’s the heart of it.”

[Deciding to write this book] was a big commitment. I had to get to know them and try to get to know the complexities of the situation in the Middle East, and get over any of my own prejudices that might arrive. I wanted their story to shine. I went to the region numerous times for research and just kind of followed my heart, my nose, my curiosity. The more I read, the more I realized how little I know, and I would still say that. I had to acknowledge my ignorance about the area — sometimes when you come to it like that, the empty vessel can actually make more sound.

It took zero convincing Rami and Bassam; they were unbelievable. From the get-go when I said to them, “Listen, I want to write about you guys,” they said yes. And then I said, “But I’m not sure that you understand — I’m a novelist, I make s— up.” They said, “Okay, as long as it’s true.” By that they meant: As long as the essence is true. And I truly believe that the essence of it is entirely true. If I discovered anything, it’s that I had nothing to say except to reflect the stories of Rami and Bassam in a profound and poetic way so that people will look at it and be changed, shifted, curious. The fact that they’re coming on tour with me says it all.

This debate about American Dirt is a powerful debate, and I love the fact that it’s coming out. It’s necessary for us to talk about. I don’t know American Dirt specifically because I haven’t read it, but the idea of cultural appropriation is a powerful one for us to talk about. But guess what: So is the idea of cultural celebration. I’m not going to say that one is better or worse than the other, but I do think that when you honor another culture and somebody else’s story and somebody else’s truth, and when you in fact honor somebody else’s contradiction, that’s when you truly begin to celebrate them. That’s when the motives come in line with the way you shape your narrative.

In writing Apeirogon, I followed my different obsessions, and they always ended up coming back to these two girls: 13-year-old Smadar and 10-year-old Abir. And then I started to realize that from one story is all stories. In that way we’re all complicit. I felt it was my job as a novelist to go in and connect all the stories [from the book] back towards these acts of violence that were perpetrated on these girls. It was a tough book to write, to be honest with you. I was with it five years, but I’m still not with it for a lifetime like Rami and Bassam. That’s why they’re so incredibly heroic to me: the fact that they tell their story over and over again, because they think it can rescue others.

The response, so far, has been uniquely positive. I thought the book might be a little controversial because it is a fairly controversial topic, and it’s an area of the world where everyone has an opinion. And [that controversy] is something that I was wary of. But I think what people are engaging with are these two men, Rami and Bassam, and the power of the way in which they harness their grief and turn it into something ultimately optimistic. It’s not up to me to say whether or not Apeirogon is a book for the times, but it is a topic for the times. I think we’re going through a pretty traumatic period in history and it’s going to take some profound truths to come along and say, “Let’s look at each other.” I think literature has the power to do that. People like Rami and Bassam, people like you and me, schoolteachers, all have the power to say, “Hold on a second.”

Someone could ask me how long it took to write this book, and on a literal level it took five years. But on another level it took 35 years of a writing career. And on another level it took 55 years, because I’m 55 years old. When I think about the way things have been shaped for me, [it’s clear] I’ve been working towards this novel for a long time. Quite frankly I have no idea what I’m going to next, but I’m going to live with this book for a while. I’m going to travel with it, I’m going to go around with Rami and Bassam and talk about it, and we’ll go to schools to see if we can find the 15-to-17-year-olds who are going to rattle the cages. We have to harness not only the grief, but some of the anger as well. Then we will have done at least part of our job.

Because in the end, my philosophy is that it all comes down to stories and storytelling. You can have a lot of things taken away from you, but you cannot have your story taken away — and that’s what Rami and Bassam have fundamentally understood. You can take away my land, you can take away my house, you can even take away the title of my country, but you will not be able, in the end, to take away my story.

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