Colum McCann in conversation with Ru Freeman

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I have begun to change myself.

                                                            - Rumi

In National Book Award winner Colum McCann’s latest book Apeirogon, one of the protagonists, Bassam, meditates on this quote from the Persian poet Rumi, one that could easily be the essence of the story. Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Apeirogon is an extraordinary novel about two men, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who have both lost their daughters in separate incidents. McCann spins yarns of friendship, politics, love, hate, and loss, into a rich tapestry of a novel which people from all over the world can understand, connect to, and fall in love with. In today’s world, filled with wildfires and thunderstorms, Apeirogon is a ray of hope for a peaceful tomorrow. In conversation with writer and activist, Ru Freeman, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021, he discussed the inspirations behind this tale and the undying quality of hope.

Right off the bat, Ru Freeman asked Colum McCann what compelled him to write from such a place ‘where few dare to go.’ McCann responded with what probably every writer would find relatable—‘I think as writers, and you do this beautifully, but, we have to risk ourselves. Sometimes we have to go into places where supposedly, we should not go.’ He recalled meeting the two men who inspired Apeirogon, in Beit Jala and listening to their moving story which, with their blessing, he crafted into a beautiful present for the world. The most important thing for him was to try and get to the textural truth of their stories and to delicately handle and highlight the issues of love and sacrifice—things that can’t be factual.

When asked about the research he had to do to capture the essence of Beit Jala, where the novel has been based, the first thing McCann was reminded of was the ‘Bird Ringing Centre’ there. He said he was quite fascinated about how the migrating birds were captured, tagged and freed and even compared them to readers who came to this place and went back with a part of it in them. In the five years that he wrote this book, McCann met Rami and Bassam, the protagonists of Apeirogon, and spent time with them and their families. A novelist’s job, as McCann candidly put it, is to ‘put us in the pulse of the moment’—to turn the book into a living, breathing medium, which is why he has attempted and left most of the politics up to the reader’s imagination. The heart-rending stories of Rami and Bassam’s loss were painful for McCann to even contemplate but what kept him going was their own hurt and sorrow. The process, he said, was ‘difficult, but necessary’ and an ‘extraordinary journey.’

The conflicts set in McCann’s book represent how there’s a top-down movement of power and how it’s always been. But now, he observed, this trend is changing—there’s an emergence of a bottom-up approach with students walking out of classrooms to organise and take part in social movements, the youth and common people taking matters in their own hands, gradually realising that only the young…can run. He also recollected Rami acknowledging that he didn’t see Palestinians as human till after his daughter passed away and he saw a Palestinian stepping off a bus, clutching a picture of her daughter to her chest—that’s when he realised that her grief wasn’t the same as his but had similar repercussions and depth. That’s what changed him. This instance also reflects upon how hate has been ingrained in each of us to make it easier for those with power, to step all over us and get their way.

McCann closed the session by reading a thoughtful excerpt from Apeirogon—

‘They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories.

My name is Bassam Aramin. My name is Rami Elhanan. I am the father of Abir. I am the father of Smadar. I am a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. I was born in a cave near Hebron.

Word for word, pause for pause, breath for breath.’