THE BELIEVER: You’ve described your experience of writing as feeling like you’re one step behind your characters and following their voices through the project. Do you ever find your characters resisting the concepts and ideas you had intended to explore?
NOOR NAGA: I think resisting implies that I have an idea of where I’m going. Most of the time, I don’t. So, no. Usually, I’m one step behind, letting them lead the way and then shocked by where things go. And I just have to follow along and then deal with the consequences later. But I find questions about intent to be very confusing, when people are asking, Why did you make this choice? I don’t really think most writers make choices.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve talked about the difficulties of writing in the voice of a character who is so far from your personal experience. Your response was to embrace the “wrongness” of it. Do you think it’s important for writers to confront their limitations within their work?
NOOR NAGA: Well, I think what you’re asking about is the distance between the writer and the characters they’re embodying, and to what extent that distance can be collapsed. I think you can do it if you cultivate a kind of listening. If you’re willing to move through the everyday, in your imagination, of a particular character, then it’s a bit like Method acting. You just have to really get inside of it and commit to being there in the mundane. You have to think about things like: How does this character walk across a room? How do they pull something out of a fridge? Very small, granular details like that. And if you take the time to do that, then I don’t think there are many characters that are inaccessible to you. It just takes patience and commitment to the bit, especially the boring parts of the bit. Very similar to Method acting.
THE BELIEVER: The characters in your novel dream of many things at night: tangerines, Kendrick Lamar, cigarettes, pomegranate seeds. Do you keep a record of your dreams?
NOOR NAGA: I don’t keep an official record, but I dream extensively every night, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the patterns of themes. I have a very obvious subconscious. Anything I’m stressed about, I will see manifested as a nightmare. I spend a lot of time paying attention to what my subconscious is telling me and trying to bring to the surface those things I’m suppressing. I dream of my family every single night, my cousins and my siblings and my parents and my grandmother, which is a bit strange. I don’t dream of my friends almost ever. I think that says a lot.
THE BELIEVER: Questions about both arrogance and humility recur in If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, and I was curious about what interests you about these themes, specifically.
NOOR NAGA: It’s a deeply religious question, actually. The way a lot of faiths understand primal sin, especially in Islam, is that the root of all sin is arrogance—arrogance about God, thinking you are not a dependent being, not dependent on the divine. There’s this idea of covering up what you know to be true. As someone who’s a practicing Muslim, and who’s deeply spiritual, I find this is the balance I’m constantly thinking about in my own life: arrogance versus humility. Because also you need a little bit of arrogance, which is sort of pride. It’s not helpful to tip too much in the other direction. Humility can turn into a kind of self-hatred or self-erasure, or a smallness that is also not healthy. I’m interested in ego, what it means to keep your actual size as a person. Not getting too big and squashing people or things around you. But also not shrinking yourself so you’re this little mouse of a person. Being human-sized.
THE BELIEVER: Do you think a good writer is suspicious of themselves? How much self-criticism do you allow into your writing practice?
NOOR NAGA: I think my writing practice is entirely self-criticism and suspicion. It’s a vaguely masochistic impulse, but I don’t think that’s necessary, or the only way. I think that’s just my way. I’m like a scab picker. I just want to look at things that are uncomfortable. I want to live in the uncomfortable place. And I want to invite readers into that uncomfortable place. I think there’s a lot of learning that happens there.
BLVR: How can someone become a better reader?
NN: That’s a very strange question. It’s like saying, How can someone be a better walker or sitter? I don’t know that there is a better or a worse way to read. I think people bring their own worlds to what they’re reading, and I’m very OK with that.
THE BELIEVER: What is your relationship to nonfiction? What are your influences in that genre?
NOOR NAGA: My influences are more academic. I’m not such a theory-head, but I like the meatiness and nuance of academic books compared with a lot of contemporary nonfiction, which I find so boring. I often get to the end of an essay collection and think, Well, this should have been one essay, or, We’ve just been circling the same idea over and over again. I feel like a lot of nonfiction just gets away with being watered-down. I can’t tell if the bar is just low. I don’t know what’s going on there. Or maybe it’s just me. I find a lot of it really, really disappointing. And I feel like it only continues to be such a successful market because people feel good about learning “information” and continuing to educate themselves—versus fiction or poetry, which feels a bit fluffy, sort of a waste of time. I tend to prefer academic books, which I find to be better written a lot of the time.
THE BELIEVER: While reading the love story in If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, I was reminded of the psychoanalytic concept of transference, wherein relationships are essentially just mutual or competing projections of individual fantasies. Janet Malcolm, for example, writes that “romantic love is fundamentally solitary.” Does this resonate with you?
NOOR NAGA: In my personal life, in the real world, I would love to say no. But somehow, every time I write, that is very much the underlying acting principle that seems to come alive for my characters, which is sad. I don’t know why I can’t write real romance. I just write transference actually. Need to work on that.
THE BELIEVER: Part of If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is footnoted with both accurate and inaccurate details, playing with the formalities of academic texts as well as the expectations of the Western gaze. It made me wonder about your own interest in footnotes. Are you a staunch footnote reader?
NOOR NAGA: Yes, I like paratextual trivia. I like footnotes. I like acknowledgments pages. Any kind of marginalia if it’s a used book. But I don’t do any research on the writers I’m reading. I don’t really want to know where they’ve lived or who they are. I want the stuff that’s in the book but slightly off-center or in the wings. All of that extraneous stuff.