It’s hard to imagine how professors who teach and conduct research, also have the time to pick up a good book to read in their spare time.
The Medium (TM) sits down with Dr. J. Daniel Elam to discuss what he’s currently reading, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif.
TM: Can you tell us a bit about what the book is about?
JDE: It came out in the mid-eighties in Arabic, and then in the late-eighties it was translated to English. It’s set in the 1930s in an unnamed gulf state and it’s about the discovery of oil and petro, and the ways in which the discovery by Americans of oil transforms that village into a totally different thing.
TM: What made you pick out this particular book?
JDE: It’s been on my list for a while, so it’s been on my bookcase just sitting there making me feel guilty for not having read it. But I’ve been thinking about environmental change and climate change. A friend recommended this book and that brought it back to my mind, thinking about digging for oil in the 1930s, trying to think about climate change going back way before the past twenty years. Actually, climate change is turning the 1930s as a way of thinking about the ways in which humans have done damage to the environment well before 1995.
TM: Is this a book included in the genre that you usually read within?
JDE: Yeah, so it’s a little outside of my realm, because I don’t usually work on gulf state fiction and pretty much don’t work on Arabic fiction, so this is closely related [to my work]. I work on African and South Asian literary fiction, and so it’s in the same kind of world but it’s of a totally different text—like the Arabic speaking world, the gulf-state world. There’s very little literature that is translated into English from that gulf state area. When it comes out, I’m super eager to read it.
TM: Do you think this book has the potential to function in a lecture or class setting? Could it be perhaps something you could teach about?
JDE: Yeah. I was actually thinking about that as I was reading it. It seems like a really important book to teach when we’re thinking about climate change—so like a class about the environment and literature. I know that it’s part of a class called Petro Fiction, so fiction about gasoline and petroleum. I was thinking especially in Toronto, where we tend to think that we get our petro from somewhere else, like the gulf, we actually get our petro from down the road. You could think about what kind of Canadian fiction would match really well with oil exploration here that would match really well with oil exploration in the gulf. What would Canadian fiction look like—especially indigenous Canadian fiction—and how would that compare with this?