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An Interview with Marcello Di Cintio for WoWFest 2018

We spoke with multi award winning Canadian writer Marcello DI Cintio, ahead of his upcoming in conversation with internationally acclaimed Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti, which will be a moving and insightful discussion on exile, displacement, belonging and political turmoil. A truly one-of-a-kind event featuring a voice of a generation. In this interview Marcello speaks about his own writing life, what our WoWFest - Crossing Borders theme means to him and how it relates not only with his upcoming conversation with Mourid Barghouti but also to the world today.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I always loved reading and writing stories when I was a young child, but I never thought about becoming a writer. All I wanted to do when I grew up was to work as a biologist in a lab somewhere. Unfortunately, by the time I graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology I’d completely fallen out of love with science. I started to think seriously about writing again, but didn’t feel I had anything to write about. Only after a year-long trip through West Africa did I feel I’d collected enough stories to start writing. My travels became the subject of my first book, and I’ve been a writer ever since.

Describe a day in the life of Marcello Di Cintio.
I wake up with just enough time to walk my eight year-old son to school. Then I eat breakfast and bring a flask of coffee down to my home office. I will then spend far too much time checking emails, reading the news, and scrolling through my social media feeds before getting to work. I probably spend as much time researching as I do writing. I will stop around 4pm to start preparing dinner. After my wife, my son and I eat, there is usually somewhere my son needs to go: soccer practise, piano lesson, swim lesson. I will go for an hour-long swim just before his bedtime. Then I’ll read or – more likely – binge-watch some bad television before going to bed.

What does this year’s WoWFest theme Crossing Borders mean to you?
Borders have been a big part of my life for the last several years. For my previous book, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, I travelled to fortified borders around the world to learn what it means to live in the shadow of walls, fences and other physical barriers. Lately, I’ve been following Trump’s border wall nonsense. So my appreciation of borders has been quite literal. There are plenty of literal borders to cross in my new book, too. Researching Pay No Heed to the Rockets required passing through checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, navigating the security apparatus surrounding Gaza, and crossing over the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine. But there are metaphorical borders, too. And perhaps these are more interesting. With Pay No Heed to the Rockets, I want to breach the “border” between the superficial and narrowly-defined way the outside world sees Palestine – as a place of trauma and violence – and Palestine’s rich cultural reality. By focusing attention on Palestinian literary culture, I hope the book crosses the border between conflict and art, war and beauty.

What would you say was the most important border you have crossed in your life or career?
The border between being an irresponsible jackass to being a father.

How do you/your work relate to themes of your event with Mourid Barghouti and the world today?
First off, let me say how excited I am to meet Mr. Barghouti. My book begins where Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah begins, on the Allenby Bridge that spans the border between Jordan and Palestine. I literally follow his footsteps across that border. Even though I never got the chance to interview Mr. Barghouti personally for the book, his work is mentioned throughout Pay No Heed to the Rockets. Sharing a stage with him in Liverpool will be a great honour. Though this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, Palestinians still endure the injustice of exile and displacement, and struggle with notions of belonging.

The Nakba was less a historical event than the beginning of a process of injustice that is ongoing. How Palestinian writers manage transform their experience into art and beauty will be something Mr. Barghouti and I will surely discuss. The refugees currently fleeing war and poverty must also contend with questions of exile and displacement and home. Sadly, our talk of Palestine is relevant to the world at large.

Your upcoming publication talks a lot about the importance of literature, particularly story-telling in times of conflict to help redefine how people and narratives and perceived globally. Were there or are there any prominent female writers or poets in Arabic culture that are underrepresented in this context?
I write about many female Palestinian authors and poets in Pay No Heed to the Rockets whose work should be read more widely. Maya Abu-Alhayyat is a wonderful poet and novelist in Jerusalem. Khulud khamis and Asmaa Azaizeh are two Haifa-based writers doing compelling and evocative work. I admire the fierce journalism of Asmaa al-Ghul and the sensual prose of Najlaa Ataallah, both in Gaza. Though I never had the chance to meet her, I admire Suad Amiry’s nonfiction. I could go on.

Who is making work that you’re really excited about? And if you could work with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses is the most beautiful novel I’ve read in years, and I am excited to read her upcoming book of poetry. I would love to work with Joan Didion. Whenever I feel blocked, I open up Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album and read a page at random. That always works. I’ve never been able to figure out the beautiful alchemy of what Didion does on the page, and I’ve love for her to lean over and whisper her secrets in my ear.

If you could offer a piece of advice to any aspiring artist what would it be?
Stop talking about writing and start writing.