The City Outside the Sentence
(Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2015)
The City Outside the Sentence was written without a mother tongue. Pronunciation glitches, thwarted accents, and makeshift multilingualism are turned into narrative possibilities, inviting the reader to navigate a city on the outskirts of grammar. Borrowing from fictional conventions as well as more essayistic forms, Arsanios’ first publication gathers ten short stories written between 2013 and 2015. It is published by Ashkal Alwan in Beirut.
If the city was made of people who aren't themselves, who is digging the holes in which towers are erected? (53)
Your book describes the displacement of people from themselves, from the time and place they are ostensibly in. What is at stake for you in this self-absence?
There are two forms of alienation at work, for me. The first is my own, as someone perpetually dis/misplaced. The second is that of those who are displaced from themselves because of the fundamental trauma of their conditions; large portions of construction workers in Beirut are Syrian (not only because of war, but for economic reasons). Capitalism constantly displaces people from themselves (alienated labor). This same sinister force drives the real estate business; crowds of old buildings are destroyed everyday and new ones erected. Real estate transactions exist in a murky underworld in which accountability and laws rarely apply. Capital has enslaved Beirut and induced its citizen to a collective slumber with occasional surges of wakefulness, such as the trash protest that took place in the Summer of 2015.
I want to believe in her ability to convey in language the violence of the city I have failed. (52)
There is deeply conflicted sense of tenderness to your portrait of both relationships and spaces. Can you speak to this impression?
Using prose, I try portraying feelings of failed love and thwarted intimacy, believing that only language can express their failures. Relationships in my stories involve people (often two women), but there’s also a third protagonist: the city. There’s a sort of push and pull between subjectivity, a fairly narcissistic sense of self—which comes by default with the first person narrator—and what’s outside—an event, a city that can’t be ignored, something that summons you to step out of your own interior. Maybe love is being able to be outside and exposed to both others and to the city?
She talks to her body when she feels assaulted, when too many voices coalesce around her. (48)
You pay such close attention to the bodies of your subjects, as though the body testifies to experiences that are in excess of language. Why do you attend to this so systematically in the context of the City?
The city was originally a place in which language was shared publicly, where decisions were collectively debated (amongst free, male citizens). The city (in its modernist model) is also what is planned, rationalized. The body’s relationship to language is richer, more complex. Its somatic and subconscious realities can’t always be accessed or processed by the conscious mind.
Beirut reverses these definitions: the city is excessive. Language fails in its task to articulate or represent. There is no symbolic sphere (linguistic or other) to contain violence. I’m not sure how these two elements work together, the body’s excesses and the city’s excesses. In my stories, I tend to blur what is inside and what is outside, what is contained and what is unleashed, but only to widen a certain consciousness of who we are in the world or in the city.
Mirene Arsanios is the author of The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2015). Her writings have appeared in publications such as The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Enizagam, and The Outpost, among others. She co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual literary magazine. She holds an MA in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College and a writing MFA from Bard College. She currently lives in New York City.