Exploring Nonfiction

“Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back.”

Hisham Matar, The Return

Books covered: Hisham Matar’s The Return and A Month in Siena

I almost never read nonfiction, partially because I write fiction and I want to learn more about the craft, and partially because I assume it won’t be interesting. That’s not true, of course. One of the few nonfiction books I have read over the years is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the woman whose cancer cells led to the first breakthroughs in cancer treatment, and I read it on a plane more than five years ago. There was a sentence about the red polish on Henrietta’s nails that I think about periodically, even though I can’t remember most of the book. 

I decided to read both of Hisham Matar’s memoirs because I’d read part of his most recent one, A Month in Siena, when I was fact-checking reviews at an internship in September. I thought it was so beautiful then that I kept reading past the quotes I was meant to be checking. I wanted to start with Matar’s memoir about his father to learn more about him. It was definitely the right choice–there were certain moments in A Month in Siena that wouldn’t have been as meaningful if I hadn’t read The Return.

The Return is about Matar’s search for his father, Jaballa, after he is kidnapped by the Libyan government for protesting against the Qaddafi regime. There is a lot of distressing material in the book, and Matar handles it fantastically. He doesn’t have any gratuitous descriptions because he doesn’t need them; the statistics are horrifying enough. Most of the male members of his family have spent ten years in prison, and it has changed everything about how they conduct themselves. Matar writes with such empathy of his uncles and cousins, and I have such a clear sense of his family. He also writes of the frustration and the subterfuge that comes with communicating with an uncooperative government, and of the strain he felt from childhood knowing that his father was a wanted man. I think what is valuable about memoir is the writer’s (assumed, at least) candor. Even though so much of Matar’s searching in The Return leads to dead ends, or to more questions, I felt like I was with him the whole time, through his fear and love and resentment. He has created an excellent voice for himself on paper. 

After The Return, A Month in Siena felt like a visit with an old friend–shorter than you’d like, but still lovely. It’s about the time Matar took to visit paintings by the Sienese school, which he’d discovered as 19-year-old living in London, still reeling from his father’s recent disappearance. I had read a few excerpts in September, and I realized when I read the whole book that it’s much more analytical about art than I expected. I liked that. Matar’s passages on the history of the paintings and the significance of certain images felt like a gentle, very personal lesson. He reads so much into the emotions of figures in the paintings. One of my favorite passages was about a dark-skinned figure among the crowd of a large painting; Matar wonders what the man’s origins are, and if he feels isolated in the Italian city where he’s been observed. The book itself was also beautiful. I don’t normally notice details beyond the font, but everything about A Month in Siena was gorgeous: the weight of the paper, the color photographs of paintings Matar disscussed, and the tall but narrow shape of the book. I didn’t let myself get food anywhere near it, which is unusual. (I don’t go out of my way to stain books, but if I do, I feel a little proud. I like to prove I was there, on that page, eating soup.)

Matar’s memoirs are important politically, of course. He combines statistics with community reactions in a way that taught me so much about the complexity of patriotism for a country affected first by imperialism and then undemocratic governments. Matar also writes about families in general, how parents and children relate to each other and how we express love. His books reminded me that nonfiction leads to connections with real people in a way that fiction can do a little, but not as completely. 

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