Dublin-born Colum McCann has written seven novels and three short story collections. He has spent most of his adult life in the US, but he grew up in Ireland during the era of sectarian conflict known as ‘The Troubles’. McCann believes that storytelling has the power to change the world, and is convinced that sharing stories across the ideological divide can be a practical and powerful tool for change. Listening to and then retelling someone else’s story, says the author, is a literal way of “walking in another person’s shoes”. This radical form of empathy informs his own writing, particularly his latest novel Apeirogon, which became a New York Times bestseller and was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
across the divide
In Apeirogon, which is divided into 1,001 fragments, McCann presents a fictionalised account of two real people: Bassam Aramin, who is Palestinian; and Rami Elhanan, who is Israeli. Bassam and Rami lived on opposite sides of the political conflict, but were united through the universal human experience of grief. Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter Abir was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. Rami’s thirteen-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomb detonated by a Palestinian. Rami and Bassam first met through a joint Palestinian-Israeli NGO called Combatants for Peace that campaigns to end the Israeli occupation. Later they were brought together again at a group for parents who had lost children to the conflict. The two fathers became close friends and now dedicate their time to telling their daughters’ stories across Israel-Palestine, and internationally. When McCann first met them in 2015, he knew that he wanted to help share their stories with an even wider audience, “in a way that goes out to heal the world.” In a meeting with the press, McCann explained how he came up with the idea for the novel Apeirogon.
Colum McCann (Irish accent): In 2015 I went to Israel and the West Bank, late 2015. And I travelled round with a group of artists and a group of activists. We went into lots of people’s homes and we met representatives from groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. We also met settlers. We saw a sort of kaleidoscopic view of what was going on over there. And it was an amazing trip and my heart was blow wide open by what I saw. But it wasn’t until the second to last day that I walked into this little office building in a town called Beit Jalah, which is near Bethlehem, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and two men were sitting upstairs at this long wooden table. And they looked like just ordinary men. And then they sat and they began telling me, or telling us, rather, their stories and it was a phenomenal thing. It changed me.
HEARTS AND HEADS
Writing a fictional novel about real living people is audacious. As McCann explains, he was initially concerned as to whether it was appropriate.
Colum McCann: I went back to New York and I thought “I would like to write about that experience. But what right do I have to do so? I’m Irish, I live in New York, how can I actually get at the true pulse of that particular moment?“ So I tried to write something else, and that didn’t succeed, and I kept coming back to the story of Rami and Bassam, because I think a writer writes towards her or his obsessions. Then what happened was, I went across and I visited and spoke with Rami and Bassam and said: “Can I write your story?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “But I don’t think you understand, I’m a novelist, I make shit up!” And they’re like, “OK”. And I said, “But do you really understand that I want to get at the core of this?” And they said to me, “You know, the worst has already been done to us. There’s nothing more that can be done to us that can be worse than what already happened. If you can capture a modicum, a tiny modicum of our message, you will have done enough.” And that liberated me in a way, and allowed me a chance to think I can try to enter into the hearts and heads of these particular men.
The novel is written in 1,001 numbered fragments. McCann was asked why he chose that structure.
Colum McCann: Originally I thought, “OK, I’ll do it in fifty sections.” And then I thought, “No I’ll do it in a hundred sections.” And then I thought, “No this is working in a peculiar way. I like it. Maybe I’ll try 365.” But two years into the process, I realised something very significant in that Rami and Bassam, the Palestinian and the Israeli men, were telling the stories of their daughters in order to keep them alive. And then I thought “Aha, Scheherazade.“ And then it naturally just led to the notion that it had to be what I called ‘A Thousand and One Cantos’. Samuel Beckett said in the late 1970s or early 1980s: “It is the job of the artist now to find a form to accommodate the mess.” And I like that. We have to find a form to accommodate the mess.
In 2013, McCann co-founded a charity called Narrative 4. Working in schools and communities, particularly in situations of conflict, Narrative 4 organises “story exchanges”. Participants are put in pairs and asked to share a personal story. Later they retell their partner’s story, but in the first person: “I…” Narrative 4 has, for example, organised story exchanges for young people on opposite sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland; between Palestinians and Israelis; and between immigrants and those opposed to immigration in the US.