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With her latest novel, ‘Enter Ghost,’ Aspen Words Literary Prize finalist Isabella Hammad wants to engage with ‘human history and human experience’

“Enter Ghost” author Isabella Hammad has been shortlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, recognizing works of fiction with a social impact. Her latest novel explores themes of family, displacement and resistance, set against the backdrop of the theater world and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Courtesy of Aspen Words
“Enter Ghost” author Isabella Hammad has been shortlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, recognizing works of fiction with a social impact. Her latest novel explores themes of family, displacement and resistance, set against the backdrop of the theater world and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With her second novel, “Enter Ghost,” author Isabella Hammad is a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize — a $35,000 award for works of fiction that explore vital contemporary issues.

The book follows an actress to her ancestral homeland, in Palestine, where she’s pulled into an Arabic production of “Hamlet” on the West Bank.

“Enter Ghost” explores themes of family, displacement and resistance, as well as self-discovery, set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hammad, who is British and Palestinian, spent several years working on the book. And while she appreciates the recognition from literary awards, she says she has complicated feelings about the accolades, given the current death and destruction in Gaza from the Israel-Hamas war.

“Obviously we’re all incredibly devastated on a day-to-day basis with what’s happening, that there isn’t even a ceasefire,” Hammad told Aspen Public Radio.

Hammad says she hopes that literary awards, like the Aspen Words prize, can connect her book to new readers, at a time when people around the world are seeking more context and information about Palestine.

She spoke to Aspen Public Radio’s Kaya Williams about the book for this series of interviews with several Literary Prize finalists. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

It has more to do with something … spiritual: to engage with storytelling and human history and human experience and internal life more than to make a point about something.

“Enter Ghost” author Isabella Hammad, on her motivations for writing

Kaya Williams: I'd love for you to tell me a little bit about the timeline and the process for writing this book, especially given the events that have occurred since its publication. What spurred this in the first place, and how long have you been working on it?

Isabella Hammad: I began the book in the fall of 2017. I don’t ever state the date in the book, but it is set in the summer of 2017, when there were these protests in Jerusalem, which kind of form a centerpiece of the novel.

And I guess I'd been mulling in my mind for a while the idea of writing a book about a play. Specifically, I was interested in theater in Palestine as a very politicized art form. I mean, all art making in Palestine is political.

But I suppose in the context of what's happening now, the Palestinian body politic, if you want to call it that, has been deliberately divided. One of the sort of structures of Israeli rule is to divide and conquer. So you have Palestinians with different legal statuses, different geographies, different levels of freedom, different levels of protection from violence, different levels of exposure to violence.

So the putting on of a play was also a kind of interesting way to think about these different Palestinians interacting with each other and what that means socially, and kind of dramatically, as well.

Williams: I'm curious, do you think that the conflicts that emerged last year, part of this very ongoing conflict, did it change at all how the book has been received, or how you felt about publishing the book, given what emerged in the fall of 2023?

Hammad: I think there's obviously been an increase in interest in people trying to understand the Palestinian context and the nature of Israeli control of Palestinian life, and you know, what the hell is going on in the Middle East. Lots of people like to say it's too complex or too complicated to understand. It's not true. It's made deliberately to look complicated, so that you look away. It's actually not that difficult to understand. And I urge people to look and try to understand.

To look closely at Palestine, to look closely at Gaza, tells you a lot about the whole world, and how the whole world functions and how power works, and how international relations work, and what the origin of the idea of human rights is. All these things, (including the concept of) what is a human being — I feel like all of these ideas can be found in Gaza, they can be found in Palestine.

I guess, on some level, I'm obviously glad to have written a book, that I've written two books that can contribute to that effort. But like I say, I’ve had mixed feelings about it, because obviously, it's in a context that's just unbearable, and with so much death.

Williams: Speaking of that first book, “The Parisian,” both that book and “Enter Ghost” are really works of fiction that are centered around one character's journey. What draws you to looking at it that way, versus, say, writing a book of nonfiction about history and nonfiction about the present?

Hammad: Well, the sort of obvious thing that people will say about writing novels is that it's another way of getting at life and of accessing the truth value of reality without having to use facts. Although I do also like facts and like to uncover facts and deal with the real.

But I suppose that novels aren't polemical, basically. It invites you in. And I think that’s a wonderful thing about fiction is that it isn’t trying to force you to see the world in a particular way.

So, while I say that I'm happy that my books are participating in a kind of educational effort, that’s not really the reason I wrote the books.

I think the reason a writer writes novels is multi-pronged and difficult to kind of pin down. And it has more to do with something, I mean, for want of a better word, actually kind of spiritual: to engage with storytelling and human history and human experience and internal life more than to make a point about something.

Williams: Now, as you were writing this book, especially in the spirit of the literary prize, fiction that has a social impact, were you writing it with the intent of a specific takeaway, what you wanted people to learn from the book, or are takeaways, incidental to writing about the subjects that you write about?

Hammad: You know, it's funny, there's one book that I was reading when I started writing. It’s Peter Brook’s very short book on theater called “The Empty Space.” And he says something in there about, when you leave a play, you don't kind of remember usually the full story, you don't remember all of the beats, you don't remember the big monologues. You're usually left with a few strong images or feelings that leave an imprint on you.

And I think you could sort of say the same thing about novels, that they leave you with a feeling, they leave you with something. You might also incidentally learn things. But I don't think — you know, people usually don't read novels to learn things, they usually read them for something else: to engage a certain part of the mind, or a certain kind of element of our dream life, or to think in a different way, although I do think that we're in a particular moment where people are grappling to learn about Palestine.

And so there is a demand for books from Palestine. So all of which to say, I'm not sure that I had something in particular that I wanted the reader to come away with, in part because you can't control what a reader feels about a work of art.

It's not making an argument. And they might really warm to some characters more than others, they might feel differently about situations, they might agree with one character and not with another because not all the characters are gonna agree with each other. They might interpret events differently.

And that's part of the freedom of reading, because it is a kind of dance between the writer and the reader that makes a novel. You know, a novel is static until it's being read. And that's when it comes to life. And that involves the mind of the reader as much as the words of the writer.

Interviews with several other Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists have been broadcast on Aspen Public Radio and archived online in the lead-up to the awards ceremony on April 25. There is a watch party for the ceremony at the Pitkin County Library at 4:30 p.m. Aspen Public Radio will record the event, and broadcast it at 8 p.m. the same night.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.