An Interview With Ian Bassingthwaighte, Author of Live From Cairo
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Ian Bassingthwaighte’s debut novel, Live From Cairo, is set at the sharp end of the migrant crisis. Dalia has been forced to flee from Iraq to Cairo, and when she is refused permission to join her husband Omran in the United States, she is stranded in a country where she is not safe and cannot work.
Charlie, her lawyer, is American, big-hearted, a little in love with Dalia and maybe at the end of his tether: he is prepared to break the rules to secure Dalia a second chance. His plan involves his colleague Aos, an Egyptian who is waging his own extra-legal struggle alongside the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and can ill afford to be drawn into Charlie’s scheme. Together they recruit Hana, who has recently come to Egypt from the States to work with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees—and to confront her own family’s history of dislocation.
Meanwhile Omran, who knows only that Dalia’s application has failed, is preparing to give up his life in America in order to be with his wife.
Bassingthwaighte’s novel combines a global perspective with a profound respect for the Egyptian context in which it is set. It also belongs to that uniquely American tradition of protest writing which even while it rages against inhumane systems and despairs of bringing about change is shot through with an irrepressible faith in people. Steinbeck is the godfather of this tradition, his heirs range from Joseph Heller (Catch 22) to William T. Vollmann (Imperial), and Bassingthwaighte is a worthy inheritor.
As well as being a novel about the cruelty of the resettlement system and all Westerners’ complicity in it, Live From Cairo is also a love story, about a couple whom a vast human crisis cannot separate, and a story about friendship vaulting high, wide cultural barriers. It’s a warm, often funny, and kindhearted tragedy.
The origins of the book lie in Ian’s own time in Egypt, where he interned at a non-profit which aims to guide refugees through the legal process of resettlement. When I had the opportunity to talk to Ian, the first thing I wanted to know about was the arduous process of turning that experience into fiction:
This is a book that engages with suffering which is happening now, on a vast scale, and the truth is that most of us who are lucky enough not to have to think about this suffering choose not to. What sustained you in your thinking and writing?
The principal thoughts at the heart of my novel—that the resettlement system is fundamentally broken; that countries who create refugees should be bound by law to resettle them; that the freedom to move is no less important than the freedom to speak—came from and were sustained by the stories of the refugees I met, interviewed, and was inspired by. It ate me up to watch them suffer. As a result, I felt strongly that I should "do something."
I also knew full well that there was nothing at all I could do. The resettlement system was and remains predicated on systems of government, which are predicated on systems of belief, which are predicated on what feels, now perhaps more than when I started, like an unchangeable prejudice. That some people just don't matter. Part of the reason the book took so long to write was that I had to constantly battle the feeling that it lacked meaning because of that. What book, regardless of how well written, plotted, edited, or publicized, could make a shit bit of difference in a world that systemically turns away from suffering?
This perhaps reveals me as a bit of a nihilist. Though I've always felt this was a lazy way to be. Which brings me to the answer to your question: I was more or less sustained in the writing by the fear of giving up, giving in, lying down, letting it be, and just sort of living forever with the guilt of having failed to express and defend my opinion. That refugees do in fact matter.
Time and again in Live From Cairo, you show how well-meaning and lovable people find themselves serving as the cogs of cruel, or at least callous, and destructive machinery. Were you anxious, at any point, that your intentions for this novel could go similarly awry?
There was, and I think ought to have been, an intense self-consciousness in writing about a country that I wasn't from, a language I didn't speak, a religion I didn't practice, and a thousand traumas I'd only witnessed second-hand as the person tasked with transcribing them. So I worried, first and foremost, that my portrayal would do more harm than good; that my own prejudices, ones I didn't even know I had, would leak into the work; that my characters would be so stereotypical that they would just reaffirm biases I had intended to undermine. You're right to call it anxiousness. But that anxiety functioned as a tool. It reminded me to go back, to revise endlessly, to seek out advice, to read more, to learn more. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether that due diligence paid off.
The novel really wrestles with those problems internally: how to convey something as simple as ‘refugees do matter’ without loss or betrayal or meeting with indifference. Aos, Hana and Charlie all work to turn the unique and subjective (and horrifying) stories of refugees into the formulaic accounts required by the resettlement procedure. It’s a process in which almost everything that matters seems to get lost.
One of the book’s early pivotal moments comes when Charlie is first trying to make Hana care about Dalia. He gives up telling Hana about her and instead he hands over Dalia’s written account of her flight from Iraq. Only her own words can make her matter, and then only because she happens to be a talented storyteller. I wondered at what point in the writing of this novel you decided to include not only Dalia’s written statement, but also Dalia’s point of view, and why?
You won't be surprised to know the first draft of this book was written entirely from Charlie's perspective. It struck me, soon after finishing the first version of that last page, that I'd made a huge mistake. This wasn't Charlie's story. Or not just Charlie's story. Why was he the only one who got to see, got to think, got to feel something explicit and not implied? Each subsequent draft took more of Charlie's pages and gave them to someone else.
At the time, it felt like an elusive process but in retrospect it was pretty obvious. Hana, the Iraqi-American, got the first batch of pages. Followed by Aos, the Egyptian with an American friend. Dalia, and her husband, Omran, only came after I'd learned and trusted myself to write outside my direct experience in order to tell a necessary but heretofore missing part of my story: why refugees run; where they go; what sustains them. It wasn't enough to filter that experience through another character's gaze. Dalia and Omran demanded to speak for themselves. To tell their own stories. As the writer, I had to do the homework—the reading, the learning, the empathetic imagining—required to make that possible. It took only a few months to see that I needed Dalia's and Omran's perspectives, and especially Dalia's letter, but it took years for those elements to manifest in ways that felt real to me and not exploitative.
For instance, that letter—the first-person written account of Dalia's flight from Baghdad—was one of the last things I technically "finished." Even in the reviewer's copy of the novel, it appears in a slightly altered form than in the finished book. Because her perspective is the furthest from my own, her character took the most work, the most thought, the most constant tinkering. In fact, I'm doing a few small edits now that the paperback is coming out. You can probably guess where I'm making changes.
Central though Charlie still is to the book, it’s hard for me to imagine a version of Live From Cairo with just one point of view, because it seems like part of what it’s about is the sheer complexity of sharing the world with other people. Your story brings together four characters from very different backgrounds in this fantastically populous city, and then, for most of the book, they misunderstand each other, let each other down, endanger each other, even traumatise one another, and usually with the best intentions. So what drew you to Charlie in the first place? What made his story the right way into this complex situation?
At first, Charlie was the only character I knew how to write. So I was drawn to him by necessity. But I discovered another reason I needed him as the book developed. He is the character who brings and binds the others together. It's a matter of positioning. While Charlie isn't the central character, he is the central point: equidistant from Hana, Dalia, Omran, Aos, and Tim [Charlie’s brother, a soldier in the U.S. Army] such that ostensibly disparate story elements—the UNHCR, the U.S. military, the Egyptian revolution, and the global refugee crisis—may be revealed as inextricably linked.
The poems of Hafez and Rumi play active—and for me very moving—roles in the story of Live From Cairo, and there are also extended references to several Egyptian writers, many of whom I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of before. What book would you recommend to someone who has yet to discover Egyptian literature?
And what are you working on now?
Another novel. It's so early in the drafting process that it's not worth describing in too much detail, but what I can say is this: on first glance, it's very different than Live from Cairo. Imagine a mashup of The Road (Cormac McCarthy), A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean), and the movie Interstellar. In other words, a literary post-apocalyptic sci-fi western that asks one fundamental question: in the event of a global catastrophe, who among us gets to live?