Isabella Hammad on her Palestinian Shakespeare novel Enter Ghost

The author of Enter Ghost, Isabella Hammad sits down to talk about Shakespeare, political theatre, and narratives of identity ahead of her appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Feature by Tara Okeke | 08 Aug 2023
  • Isabella Hammad

Legend has it there would be no 'skim milk' without Shakespeare. No 'puppy dogs', either. These are just two of the nearly 2000 words whose invention is commonly credited to the Elizabethan dramatist. Such an outsized influence on language (and, by extension, its literary canon) is certainly unprecedented; it can, however, also be overstated. With 'puppy' finding its roots in Old French and 'skim' and 'milk' having Old High German derivations, it would be more accurate to say Shakespeare was – lexically – more a smooth innovator than an originator. Still, the objective of any legend is not to be exact but to cast an image that rouses and draws you in, remaking you in its shadow. The fact that such an image tends to fracture under scrutiny is, largely, irrelevant. 

For British-Palestinian author Isabella Hammad and her second novel Enter Ghost – a homecoming tale with a production of Hamlet on the West Bank at its crux – such image-making was never far from mind. In one indelible passage, the novel’s protagonist Sonia admits to being “haunted” by the thought of playing Ophelia, a role “trailing significations… like flower petals.” Did the author feel similarly apprehensive about embedding a Shakespearean work and its attendant images within her own?  

“I actually found it kind of fun to deal with,” Hammad demurs, smiling. “There's a way in which Hamlet, like all of Shakespeare's plays, becomes so close to cliché. So one of the things I did was use the Arabic translation [of Hamlet] by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and then translate it back into English.” This was essential, she explains, to “defamiliarise” the original Shakespearean lines and position the language “off-centre” – toying not only with the “foregone conclusions” of the play but also the images that are typically conjured. 

This spirit of extemporaneity – of language in translation and life in perpetual motion – pulses through Enter Ghost. It is an ambitious and remarkably accomplished work, not least because Hammad manages to maintain this momentum across narrative levels, from the intradiegetic to the metadiegetic. There is a deep knowing to this – to lines like, “Basically, right, Hamlet is a guy who thinks too much and talks too much and can’t get it together” – which offset facile wit with fourth wall-breaking and result in a novel with as much shades of Molière as mockumentary. 

“I'm obviously interested in the mixing of literary cultures,” Hammad says, on how she, like her characters (particularly the production’s director, Mariam) sought to mediate “high art” with the homespun. What about her interest in theatre? “I’ve been interested in theatre, in Palestine specifically, for a long time. There was a film by [Israeli-Palestinian filmmaker] Juliano Mer-Khamis about his mother called Arna’s Children… I watched that when I was very young.” This 2004 feature chronicles the working life and legacy of Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli communist activist who founded ad hoc theatre group Stone Theatre and an alternative pastoral care system for Palestinian children whose lives had been torpedoed by the Israeli occupation during the First Intifada. It won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

“It's a really great film,” Hammad confirms. However, it was what Mer-Khamis turned his attention to next and what he did with what remained of Stone Theatre – its site destroyed by an Israeli bulldozer during the Battle of Jenin, its significance living on in a generation of survivors – that left the clearest imprint on Enter Ghost and its author.

“Juliano turned it into the Freedom Theatre [a Palestinian community-based theatre and cultural centre on the West Bank]. I became really interested in the Freedom Theatre and theatre that’s close to the populace – or the polis – in some way.” Hammad goes on to cite the late British theatre director Peter Brook – renowned not only for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company but also his championing of multinational troupes and productions with international reach – as another cynosure. Brook’s notion of an “immediate” category of theatre – which is characterised in his 1968 book, The Empty Space, as “involving the bringing together of tradition and innovation” – was especially resonant. 

“In looking at Palestinian existence – and [impulses like] cooperation, coordination, resistance and making beautiful things under the conditions in which they live – theatre made all sorts of things available to me,” Hammad continues. “I wanted the putting on of a play to be an opportunity, a cipher for other kinds of organising as well. One of the elements of the architecture of the Israeli regime is to fragment – and to solidify the fragmentation of – the Palestinian body politic.” Through Enter Ghost’s all-Palestinian heritage ensemble, Hammad explains that “you get a look at the social drama of these different people who have these different political and social experiences and legal statuses, and yet are unified by it.”

Squaring protagonist Sonia’s unvarnished recollections of her life back in London (“Everything seemed provisional, everything was a proposition”) with the undulating frisson between the assembled cast in Ramallah (“Get outside the frame. This was just the play, bleeding… Everyone is suspicious of each other”) was another way to unify the central characters’ voices, by turns accentuating and attenuating the legibility of their intentions. And focusing on voice – on the ways it can be transmitted, projected, suppressed – allowed Hammad to eschew the folkloric (another type of foundational image that tends to fracture over time) and instead be more “playful” with symbolic constructs.

“I think if you grew up in just one culture – with one language, one heritage – you don't necessarily notice the edges of it,” Hammad says, alluding to her mixed background and the understanding it gave her of “the constructiveness of identity and language.” Hammad no longer spends a great deal of time in London – or, even, in the UK. In fact, on the day of our Zoom, she is in Greece following spells in France and Palestine earlier in the year. In April – the same month in which Enter Ghost was published – she was announced as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, a now-storied list compiled every ten years to showcase the next generation of British literary talents. Hammad was “really happy” to be selected – “I think anything that encourages a writer, especially early in their career, is really valuable” – and, in reference to the commentariat and column inches spawned, acknowledges it is “good for making literature newsworthy.” She does, however, have reservations about “list culture and prizes” more generally and, reflecting on her own positioning within her work as well as within the world, is inclined to believe this particular list “shows the arbitrariness of national identities.”

Even the most arbitrary of ideas and images – especially those that owe their existence to legend – have real staying power. Questions of whether these fractured images could be reframed, whether related injustices could be redressed – whether the world could be remade – are all questions posed, implicitly, by Enter Ghost. They are also questions without definitive answers. Much of Enter Ghost brings to mind Jacques Derrida, who theorised a kind of apparitional despair that, unlodged from the past, unsettles the present and unseats the future. Hauntology, Hammad admits, was not expressly considered when writing Enter Ghost. But there were other texts she revisited after writing the novel, only to realise they had been on her mind all along. Toni Morrison’s Beloved – a book Hammad claims, having first read it as a teenager, “made her mind, in a way” – was one, and Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters another.

Both works incorporate “the spectre of motherhood”, broken down in Enter Ghost into its constituent parts and corresponding lines of enquiry (“How might mothering be construed differently?” Hammad asks. “What might the role of the woman be in a collective resistance effort? How might it be made anew?”), and both books capture the struggle for power against forces of oppression. “When a struggle exceeds the span of a single generation’s lifespan, there's a kind of haunting that occurs: we are haunted by the people who fought before us and we will haunt those who come after us,” Hammad says. “There’s a kind of mass haunting that's going on – it means there’s still work to be done.”

Enter Ghost is out now with Jonathan Cape

Isabella Hammad is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in conversation with Raja Shehadeh on 16 Aug (sponsored by The Skinny) and in conversation with Cecile Pin on 17 Aug