Jonas Hassan Khemiri is a 2020 finalist for the National Book Award in Translated Literature for his book, The Family Clause, a singular novel hailed by The Times Literary Supplement as a “complex portrait of a family that is both identifiable and distinctive, normal and strange.” Below, he illuminates how writing plays informs his fiction, examines how each of his books have been an attempt to tell the truest version of the self that wrote them, muses on how the pandemic will affect the future of fiction, and brings us into the moment where he first found out he was nominated for a National Book Award.
What were you doing when you found out you’d been nominated for the National Book Award?
I had just woken up at home in Stockholm, Sweden. My wife and I were preparing breakfast for our kids, when I checked my email, and saw the wondrous news.
Do you have any favorite past (or recent) National Book Award winners?
If I would have to choose one I guess I would say Cortázar. And Calvino. And Ralph Ellison. Plus Joyce Carol Oates. Including Flannery O’Connor.
The Family Clause is your fifth novel. How has your writing changed over time, and how do you see this novel in comparison to your previous books – is it an evolution, a departure?
My first book was published when I was twenty-four and now I’m closing in on forty-two. With age I have started to think of every past book as an attempt to tell the truest version of myself at that particular time. Or rather the version of myself that I, for different reasons, wasn’t able to live out in real life. My two previous novels published in English (Montecore and Everything I Don’t Remember) were both highly voice-driven and centered around main characters who used everything in their power (imagination, lies, aliases) to flee from everyday life and true connection. The Family Clause is less voice-driven and written in third person, present tense, which was a first for me. The plot is centered around a family that has been deeply scarred by the disappearance of a father, and the death of a sister. In this book, I was more interested in portraying the courage and stamina that it takes to remain, to stay put and take care of your loved ones, rather than simply disappearing.
The dialogue in The Family Clause is masterful, and we are also often immersed in what might be described as the characters’ inner monologues. You are a celebrated playwright. How do you see the interaction of these forms in your work – how does your playwriting inform your novel-writing, and vice versa?
Thank you. For me the process of writing books and plays is quite similar. When my writing is going well, I just sit back and listen to what my characters are up to, and whenever I have made a plan and the characters refuse to follow it, I usually know that I’m on the right track. In this particular book, I realized that I had planned that the mother would come in towards the end and mend things, make people come together, do a Kofi Annan of sorts and mediate. Then I was both surprised and relieved when I realized that she had no intention of doing so at all, she just entered the book, explained that she had spent so many years taking care of everyone, being 100% percent, and now it was her time to be free. It became sort of liberating for me as well, that she was able to cut the ties to her past.
Parenting (and family life in general) sometimes feels very claustrophobic in the novel—see this scene, excerpted in Literary Hub—which feels astonishingly prescient when reading in the time of the pandemic. Sweden has thus far avoided a general lockdown, but how has the pandemic affected you? How do you think it will shape the writing of the future?
I’m one of the few fortunate who have not been too affected by the pandemic. Some of my plays have been delayed, the German publication of The Family Clause was postponed and a book tour in the US was cancelled. But schools have remained open here in Sweden and I have been walking to the studio where I work, more or less every day. I have no idea how this will influence the future of writing, but if I could wish for something, it would be that confinement, isolation, and closed borders will feed into new kinds of books, fiction full of the freedom that we took for granted before the pandemic hit.
In The Family Clause, scenes narrated from one family’s perspective are sometimes rewound and replayed from another perspective. Where did the idea for this narrative technique come from?
From all the times when I have tried to reconstruct a family event from the past, using the memories of relatives who were there, only to realize that the way these relatives told the story of what really happened said much more about them than what actually happened.
What are you reading now?
At The Bottom of The River by Jamaica Kincaid. I had only read Girl before, and found this copy at a local second hand bookstore. Apparently it used to belong to the lovely Swedish poet Kristina Lugn who passed away recently. The reading experience is enhanced by her underlining and a faint scent of her cigarettes.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri is the author of novels (Everything I Don’t Remember, Montecore), plays (I Call My Brothers), and a collection of plays, essays, and short stories (Invasion!). Among his many honors are the August Prize, the highest literary award for Swedish literature; the Enquist Literary Prize; the Borås Tidning Award for Best Literary Debut Novel; and an Obie Award. His novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and his plays have been performed by more than one hundred companies around the world. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden. You can visit him at his website, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.