Alaa Al Aswany explains how a University of Illinois Histology department becomes a microcosm for the world.
Question: What is ‘Chicago’ about?
al Aswany: This is a novel of a place, because the novel of place is a category in fiction, you see? And the place here is the Department of Histology in the University of Illinois in Chicago, and you have American characters, you have Egyptian characters who are immigrants, and you have Egyptian students who are newcomers from Egypt, and it’s a very, very wide variation of characters’ problems, human sufferings, and how both culture could see each other, you see, and what is the problem, what is the right formula for immigration, you see, because I believe that there is a right formula for immigration. To get integrated to your new country, a new culture, and to be part of this new society, and to keep your roots and your heritage at the same time, it is not easy to achieve this right formula of immigration, but it is possible, you see. My characters failed to have this right formula. You have one person who just decided to cut off his roots and you have another person who is suffering and asking himself, at the age of 60, if that was a right decision to leave Egypt, especially that this was related to a very true love story he had with a female activist in Egypt who accused him to be a coward who left his country and he was living for 30 years with this obsession. The president of Egypt is supposed to come to visit Chicago in the novel and this is a scene where many things happen. Mostly the things which happened [with the president] would not be very pleasant. I cannot say more.
Question: What was the inspiration for ‘Chicago’?
al Aswany: Usually, a novelist is writing his human experience, but this does not mean that he’s writing an autobiography. But he is inspired [by] what he lived, you see? And, as a dentist, I studied in Chicago, and I had a master degree in the University of Illinois in Chicago, and from the first day, I realized that I was lucky to be in Chicago because Chicago is a very rich American city in the sense of culture, in the sense that it’s very representative to the American identity and to the American dream and to the American culture. And from the first day, I said to myself that I have a very, very important opportunity and I must keep my eyes open. I must get exposed to the whole experience in Chicago. There were more buildings and you see more [evoluted] way to control things, but more evolution in science, you see, in the dental school, for example. But the human experience is the same. For example, the feelings of an Arab immigrant in America, I tried to present this in Chicago. I tried to explain this, and I tried to understand before writing, you see, I had to decide if… when I was studying in the US, if I’m going to get back to Egypt or I’m going to stay in America, and it was very essential for me then to meet many, many Arab immigrants, and I did, and especially Egyptian immigrants. And I think it was very useful. That’s how I did draw these characters of immigrants because I tried to understand how do they think, how do they suffer. The situation has become more acute, in the medical [term], after 9/11, you see, but I believe that 9/11 did not create the problem. I mean, it just, the problem was there, but the 9/11 just pushed the problem to the surface, to be visible.
Question: How did you develop characters?
al Aswany: I was inspired by real people, but I do not copy some people in the book. I mean, it’s very evident, but sometimes I must explain this clearly. I was inspired by many people I met, by some American professors I met, by some Egyptian immigrants, by some Egyptian students in the universities, in the University of Illinois, so all these people are inspired, or these characters are inspired by real people. I think that it was very, very inspiring to see… I was working in the department where almost every ethnic group on earth was represented, you see? We had Japanese people, Chinese people, people from Russia, Arab people, Egyptians – we had everybody working in the department, and that was really a wonderful [idea] for me, I mean, because that’s how, I think this is one of the American most important point, is that to be able, in America, to be able to receive people, very different people and to make this wonderful mix, you see, which is very successful, and also I think that I learned in the dental school many things that were very useful to me, not only in dentistry, you see? I remember the first time I sat with my American professor to write my thesis and he told me that what is very important in writing a thesis is what you can say in two words, you don’t have to say it in three words, and I said to myself, that’s exactly what I need for literature, you see. And I was, I think also I learned in America the know how of success, that I think this is very American, you see. I think this is why America is having all these achievements, because you learn in America to concentrate and to see clearly what you want to do and how to overcome the barriers and how to work very hard in the right direction, and I think I did learn this, and that was very useful to me both in literature and in medicine as well.
Question: What should readers take away from ‘Chicago’?
al Aswany: I found, when I was reading, or writing “Chicago,” I made a big research about many things, and then I found an instruction made by the American Army during the Vietnam War to, that was an instruction to the American soldiers, and it was, it said, “When you shoot, do not look at the eyes.” And I found this very significant. You see, why do you tell your soldier, when you shoot somebody, do not look at this eyes? And I found this, it makes sense to me because if you look at the eyes of somebody you’re going to kill, you’re going to see the human being, and if you’re going to see the human being, you will never be able to kill, you see? And you must dehumanize your victim, you see? You must think about your victim as somebody who is not like you, who is an enemy, who is a Jew, who is a Muslim, who is an Arab, who is… You see? To be able to kill him. And I find, and I wrote this even in some, in the speech I made in Austria, because I had a Bruno Chriski award. I wrote this in my speech, that… So, the role of literature, in my opinion, is exactly the contrary. Our role as fiction writers is to call the people to look at the eyes, you see? To see what is human, to humanize the people. Accordingly, we are going to learn much more about each other, and, accordingly, we’re going to get rid of all these kinds of stereotypes and bad images about other people. We’re going to learn that we are much alike and we have many things in common and we are, in the end, human beings.