“As Najwa Karim awoke one morning from a troubled sleep she found herself transformed in her bed into Franz Kafka. She did not know this name, this face, this body, not then, of course; that came later, after the riots and arrest and torture.”
The opening lines of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” are some of the most famous in the history of literature, so to adapt them for a modern novella is, at best, a risky proposition, subject to the criticism of purists as well as pundits. And to make the protagonist a woman, in fact a Muslim woman, is about as risky as a white male author can get in today’s politicized literary climate. But to read David Southard’s K. at Liberation is to read a work in which identities are subjugated to ideas, and labels are rendered unimportant while exploring an individual’s role in a larger society. There are truths that go deeper than what’s discussed in popular culture, and Southard is not afraid to uncover them. In that regard the risk taking never stops. Southard’s narrative challenges throughout. At 90 pages, it’s a fast, but engrossing read.
Najwa K., like many good protagonists, is a reluctant participant. In her particular situation, it’s the political upheaval in a Middle East city, where the population seeks to overthrow a repressive regime. Her character mimics Kafka, who, it seems, was a reluctant participant in just about every endeavor presented in his life. Najwa, though, is much more willing to engage the world around her, and she struggles with its conflicts, dealing with both a traditional family and progressive friends, while also dabbling in fantastical fiction of the type Kafka produced—oh, and dealing with waking up in a strange man’s body.
Southard makes it work by maintaining a tight focus on his protagonist. Najwa is not Kafka reborn, nor is she a mere face in the crowd, but is a thinking, evolving human being.
As I’ve worked with David Southard while editing at another literary journal, I took the opportunity to pose a few questions about the genesis and content of this remarkable book.
Joe Ponepinto: How did you come to tell the story through the character of Najwa, who is Muslim, particularly in this time when authors are regularly called out for “appropriating” characters from other cultures? What’s your familiarity with Islam and the Middle East?
David Southard: I hate to rely on what must surely be an outdated platitude about an old concept of creativity, but I didn’t really choose my character; she appeared. I took a course on Kafka when I was an undergraduate student some 15 years ago. My friend, a young woman who shares the same initials as my protagonist, came to class one day and said that she woke up feeling Kafkaesque and I wrote the first paragraph of a story where she woke up as Kafka instead of Gregor Samsa waking up as a bug. Nothing came of it, and soon after finishing school I stopped trying to write fiction. The story stuck with me nonetheless. It wasn’t until I was reading about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that Najwa started to form. After that, I did what I imagined any good writer tries to do—write a good and honest story.
To do that meant research and care. I had already read the Quran and some collections of Hadith, and revisited them a little to help flush out a few of the supporting characters, but most of my research was on the Arab Spring and on Kafka’s life. In both, I found the driving force of this novel, which is about the fight for autonomy for one’s own authority, the fight against control, whether it be an overbearing patriarch or a suffocating autocracy.
I have no interest in pushing stereotypes or staking a claim to a single character or even a single narrative somehow representing all of a culture or all of a historical event. I don’t feel that this book does that, though I suppose that is up for readers to decide. I hope they find something redemptive, something informative in reading it, something that makes them feel less alone.
J.P.: This aspect seems particularly critical since you present Najwa as a nonbeliever, a woman who lives in what appears to be a Middle Eastern city in which a strict religious culture dominates. You write, “She had found little escape in Islam, though she prayed for it as a child, asked God to grant her some measure of belief. Maybe she could have shared that with Father or Fatimah or found some other connection to the world. But she could not fake those feelings. Prayer did little, practice even less.” I understand this may be a parallel to Kafka’s life.
D.S.: Kafka’s relationship to religion is still being debated among scholars, which exemplifies the beauty in the unknown, unexplained, and interpretive in Kafka’s writing. I think there are works that clearly show him dealing with aspects of Judaism, both culturally and religiously. The quote capture something a lot of people feel, including Kafka and myself, and that is the existential abeyance of seeing how people connect to being in the world while you exist outside of it and know you cannot use one of the oldest of tools to be a part of it.
J.P.: Can you discuss some of the other parallels between Najwa’s life and Kafka’s. For example, the publication she writes for is named Kafia! (Enough!). They both write fantastical stories. Toward the end, Najwa succumbs to what appears to be tuberculosis.
D.S.: Both Kafka and Najwa deal with a father who seeks to control their lives. Both feel an inexplicable drive to write fiction. Both are trapped by a sense of guilt. Both seek redemption in a world that seems intent on refusing such redemption or is, at best, indifferent to the possibility. In all of these ways, the character of Najwa mirrors Kafka; or more accurately, she mirrors a great deal of his writing which was so much more than mere biography.
J.P.: Najwa/Kafka becomes a participant in what appears to be an Arab Spring-type uprising. How does this tie into Kafka’s life, or does it?
D.S.: This, because Najwa the character is based on Kafka and his work, ties to both of their lives, and, I hope, to our own. The uprising is the real-world actualization of self-determination, at least the fight for it. The action we see taken in the world might spur the existential one within, as opposed to the other way around, which is how a lot of us stay trapped in our heads. We think if we can change ourselves than we can put that change into action. Sometimes, we need to act first in order to change ourselves.
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