Why did you decide to be a writer, not a painter?
It was a very conscious decision to stop painting – not stopping drawing – and write. A painter is like a violinist: you have to play every single day, you can’t do it sporadically. For me, there were too many political urgencies to spend my life painting. Most urgent was the threat of nuclear war – the risk of course came from Washington, not Moscow. And now, living in a village is very social, much more than the city. And the practical tasks – shovelling snow, the political tasks which come on email – I do these first before I sit down to write.
It is striking how many of your books have been done as collaborations – most recently a translation with Rema Hammami, of Mahmoud Darwish’s epic poem “Mural”.
Yes, I really welcome collaboration. I’ve also done collaborations with my son Yves, my daughter, Katya, and in the years of television film in the 1960s, with Mike Dibb. The important thing about collaboration is not to make compromises. All differences of opinion have to be faced, reflected on. It’s like the opposite of committees, where people are swamped by compromises. Mike Dibb remains a close friend. In the 1960s, working for television was a way of earning money – books didn’t pay, I had to survive. So I did interviews, reportage. I was at ease with TV. We had this idea of making a four-programme series about the relationship between art and image. It was very low-budget, not important to anyone, so no one was on our backs. We spent six or eight months working on it. The BBC didn’t believe in it and showed it very late at night. The book came as a hurried add-on.
What was it like working with Rema Hammami?
Rema and I travelled together in Palestine, and worked on this translation together, and by email, for years. We argued incessantly. Translation is such a subtle process: you have to penetrate the language, get behind it. You have to find the rhythm, the silences. Rema was the brave one who took our work to Darwish to ask what he thought. He approved. What we had was a voice – Darwish’s in English, which has its own rhythm, cadence, forms of silence.
John Berger was awarded the 2009 Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature, an award presented to the very greatest of writers – those whose work has given both pleasure to readers and inspiration to their fellow writers.
He is the author of From A to X and Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. He illustrated Darwish’s Mural and translated it with Rema Hammami, professor at the Institute for Women’s Studies at Birzeit University, Ramallah. Forthcoming this summer are his early novels Corker’s Freedom and A Painter of Our Time.