New Yorker fiction (Jan 24) – “Naima”

The New Yorker has made the story available online only to subscribers.

It seemed, at first glance, to be yet another straightforward account of a family of status and means fractured by death, with a household staffer (Naima the maid, in this case) taking up the emotional slack. Tendrils of mystery rise throughout the story around the illness and death of the mother, the past professional activities of the father (in service to a deposed monarchy), and even, perhaps, about the paternity of the family’s only child, young son Nuri.

“You must know, regardless of anything, about [your mother’s] great humanity,” he said, the word utterly new to me. I repeated it in my mind — humanity, humanity — so that I could look it up later. “She never ceased to be tender with Naima, who was innocent, of course. Ultimately, everyone is innocent, including your father. … You have no idea what he was back home. It’s difficult, looking at him now, to believe that he is the same person and that the world is the same world. And he wanted someone to inherit it all.”

The New Yorker‘s customary opaqueness about the source of its fiction pieces notwithstanding, it appears this story is likely an earlier draft or an excerpt drawn from Hisham Matar’s second and forthcoming novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance. His writing reflects his family’s harrowing and unsettled legacy:

[In March 1990], Hisham Matar’s father, Jaballa, a leading Libyan political dissident living with his family in exile in Egypt, disappeared in classic, conspiratorial style: spirited away from his home by the officers of one ruthless secret service, Egypt’s mukhabarat, before being driven to an airport in the back of a car, its windows obscured by newspapers, and handed over to another. The men from the Libyan foreign intelligence service were waiting with a blindfold and handcuffs on the apron by their unmarked executive jet. (The Telegraph, 04 Feb 2010)

In the face of their lengthy painful struggle, my irritation about the fidgety nature and elaborate details of this published story fades into petty insignificance. I’m embarrassed to be quibbling about stylistic details, but am confused about the convergence of fiction and non-fiction. What must each genre achieve in order to remain genuine? Is it possible to have too blurry a boundary?


Hisham Matar is also the author of an earlier novel, In the Country of Men. He is working on a campaign “calling for information on the whereabouts and release of Libyan political prisoner Jaballa Matar.”

(“Prison bars” from Fernando Silveira / cc by-nc-sa)


1 Comment to New Yorker fiction (Jan 24) – “Naima”

  1. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    February 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Surely authorial suffering ought not to stupefy our critical faculties? Sympathy for the person doesn’t force us to love his craft.

    Or am I inhumane?

  1. By on February 7, 2011 at 9:34 pm

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