A Bit of World Building in Hisham Matar’s The Return

“We entered the unexpected silence trees create by the sea. The changed light. The moistness in the air becoming slightly more material.”

Hisham Matar, The Return, Pg. 26

I’m currently making my way through Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return. When I came across this passage I was struck by how poetic it was, and by how simply Matar was able to construct a space in my mind, a sensation of a place, with so few words. It reminded me of the concept of world building I had learned last year.

In July 2020 I took part in a writing workshop hosted by Prem Panicker and Arati Kumar-Rao. I remember one of the modules, our weekly Zoom facilitated psuedo-lectures, this one lead by Arati, which was all about world building. With regards to storytelling, whether it be with text, pictures, or video, she spoke about describing not just what can be seen, but what can be smelled, heard, tasted, and felt. The point was to call upon all the senses, pay attention to what your body was receiving, and infuse that into your story. This is a skill she has developed extremely well, as evident by her recent long-form piece River at the Heart of the World, published in Emergence Magazine.

Matar, with only three sentences, paints for us a wonderful experience. In the first sentence, he utilizes sound–or lack thereof– when describing the “unexpected silence” of the trees as they absorb the constant yet subtle sounds of the sea, familiar to anyone who has walked along its edge. In fact, there is time involved here as well, because something unexpected must disrupt an ongoing moment. So there is constancy first. It is the sound of the ocean, which is interrupted by the silence one experiences as they walk into a forested area, the trees absorbing the sound. That is followed by the visual description of “changed light.” Again a moment of transition takes place. And it is followed by a physical sensation, beautifully described as the air becoming more material, in which he is describing both the humidity as well as (presumably) the increased salt content in the air. It’s really a beautiful composition. Strikingly simple, specific to his experience, yet something easily recalled by any reader who has experienced something similar.

Further into the book there are additional, excellent examples of Matar’s descriptive abilities. Honest, simple, and poignant. A section of the book that displays world building particularly well is the chapter titled Benghazi.

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