Pardon the English major intrusion, but sometimes you read a book so good that you have to write about it.
I spend a good deal of time contemplating why works of literature flourish or are forgotten. Partially, it’s so that when I someday bother to sit and write a novel, it’ll be the sort of novel that hits bestseller lists with a resounding THUD, creating mass hysteria among 16-24 year olds. But it’s also an academic consideration, pondering why we read what we read. To a large degree, books that are fast-paced, twisty, and plot-focused, with a healthy dash of sex and controversy – these are the books that audiences desire. But they’re not always excellent examples of capital-L Literature. So how does Literature succeed?
I think a book like Habibi is an example of successful Literature. It’s the story of a young Arab girl in an indeterminate future-past, sold into marriage and later slavery, as she raises, loses, finds, and falls in love with another slave boy who she just happened to rear as a son/brother. Yeah, what? It’s a weird book – well, graphic novel, to be exact. But don’t let any of that diminish its importance. It’s an excellent piece of fiction.
More than anything else, the book made me curious. And I think that’s what sets it and other Literature apart from lower-case l literary works. As I poured over pages adorned with art so impeccable that reading was practically a religious experience, my mind wouldn’t stop churning. The book delves heavily into Islam, human sexuality, and the confluence of the two. It’s safe to say I know little about Muslims and Arabic culture, so that piqued my interest. The author’s use of Arabic script and numerology was similarly invigorating – who knew the symbolic flow of written Arabic was so intertwined with religious ideals and cosmic balances? As far as sexuality goes, I may know a thing or two about love and desire, but to see those concepts so achingly portrayed on almost every page certainly made me reconsider my self-imposed near-exile here.
Habibi opens an internal discourse, an intra-brain dialogue, as it were, the ions and synapses of the mind firing like the Fourth of July. I set the book down over an hour ago and yet a part of me is still wondering if the flow of Arabic writing from right to left has religious origins or what the heck ‘bismillah’ means. I’m so damn curious! More important, perhaps, I’m not anxiously anticipating a sequel – instead, I am savoring these lingering moments of wondering, essentially, “What was that?”
(As I think on it further, another fifteen minutes past, the book could also be considered demonstrably racist, written by an author who practically luxuriates in the anguish of sexual cruelty and unfulfilled desire. But…I’m still thinking about it. Who can honestly say that about Twilight, hours after completion? This is Capital L stuff indeed.)