• Rowan Fortune

Utopian Q&A: Omar Sabbagh

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His latest books are Minutes from the Miracle City (Fairlight Books, 2019), a Dubai novella; and Reading Fiona Sampson (Anthem Press, 2020), a book-length single-author study. Currently, he teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.

Rowan Fortune: It has been over half a millennium since Thomas More wrote Utopia, coining the name of a genre that applied literary wit to the dream of a better world. This conversation of texts played a pivotal role in shaping the narratives of modernity, as well as the novel, modern prose fiction’s most distinctive medium. However, the utopian imagination has also been read back into the earliest human stories.

Humanity is at a crisis point, beset by systemic catastrophes of ecology, economy and political legitimacy, the basis of which can be found in the upheavals of More’s period—the land enclosures and earliest intimations of industrial revolution. Utopia is often said to be at a low point, relatively dormant since its flowering in the 1970s.And yet, even discounting other mediums, novelists continue to explore utopia; for example, in the work of Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alan Jaccobs, Robert Llewellyn, Ada Palmer, Nisi Shawl, and Cory Doctorow.

Even in dystopian times, this imaginative leap makes its simple demand on artists.

What is your earliest memory of utopia?

OS: This is an interesting question, and one that invites a satirical mood: I could obviously say, the womb, or a list of childhood memories of plenitude and satisfaction, tongue in cheek or not. That said, I do in fact (adolescence and books aside, which latter I’ll mention in a moment, closing this answer) have what I think might be an interesting and truthful answer here. At the age of 4 or 5—and I know this, because I remember myself in bed in a house which my parents had only moved to when I was 3—I imagined for myself, in advance of all our current digital boons (this was the mid-1980s) the idea of a machine or computer that might have all the answers my 4-5 year-old-self wished for. In particular, I recall, a screen memory or not, wanting to know EXACTLY how many great white sharks, or tarantulas, there were extant at that daydreaming moment on the earth, and where? I imagined, as I still recall it now, a kind of map or atlas that would light up in all the places where those terrifying, but still fascinating creatures just were! This, in my view, was an omnipotent fantasy and thus a kind of utopian wish, for some kind of closing omniscience, whether to shore up anxieties (likely) or to indicate what would later kick-in after a latency period (forgive the hackneyed Freudianism!) as an adolescent fathomless intellectual curiosity, which was, and remains (fortunately or not) unsatiated! I also read More’s pivotal text before arriving at university, as well as I think Plato’s Republic at about 16 (a first effort there, to be repeated many times, by official university task-mastering, and perhaps for my own interest). I also bought the three volumes of Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope and, before university again, had ploughed my way through the first one hundred pages of volume 1. All in all, yes, I was I suppose the possessor of a utopian temperament from earliest memory!

Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?

No. But I do think in language perfection can be reached. By that I mean that writing in a language one truly possesses, and I have only English in this regard, one can actually GET IT ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. I haven’t to date, but I do think some authors I’ve read have. While more conservative now (but still very much left of centre in a strictly political sense), I do think that in writing, sentences or books, one can totalise an intended truth. Possessing and deploying language to, as I say, perfection, certainly does not mean wordiness or extensional range or fancy prose. What I think it does mean, in this embryonic idea of mine (which as it happens, only passed through my mind on the toilet this very morning: the toilet being one of my most pivotal thinking-spots), is the use of language in an absolutely valid manner INTENSIONALLY. Which is to say, the just words in the just order at any given moment, context – rendering, I suppose a small microcosm of justice tout court!

How is utopia most expressed in your life?

By an inexorable thirst for meaning. Not knowledge, but the trajectory of an infinite (within me, a mortal, given!) search for more and more biting insight.

If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?

I don’t think there is one, I’ve read or know of at least, in which I would choose to live. But there are dystopias I would find horrible, almost by definition, to live within; however, for all that horror, I would agree in some fictional, magical deal, to live within them, because of the sheer awe I have for those books and their contents. I might, for instance, say Kafka. But I don’t read German, so I wouldn’t in all honesty get away with that. But, having recently read Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, in a newish effort to master his oeuvre, I would say that one pertaining, present utopian wish, perhaps, would be to live inside that imaged inferno for the simple reason that it’s a work of genius and I’d be honoured to be one of O’Brien’s characters there. Indeed, perhaps I am already? – as per one of the seminal metafictional notions and devices in O’Brien’s more famous At-Swim-Two-Birds. I’d also wish for this, because on the outside reading in, his work is hilarious, and I imagine my foregone laughter would be multiplied were I to find myself inside the novel! Again, perhaps I already am?

How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?

See answer to the second question, above. In my use, searching and at times commanding of English.

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