- Mariam Karim
East for Fall - Mark Danowsky
An Hour's Delay - Sheela Jaywant
Millennium Development Goals - Subimal Misra, translated by V Ramaswamy
Seven Heavens - Samim Ahmed, translated by Arunava Sinha
The Last Migration - M Mohankumar
A Sri Lankan Migrant’s Tale - Ashok Ferrey
Migration and Writing - Vineetha Mokkil
River People - Uddipana Goswami
Helen Chachi - Abhinav Jain
Great Uncle's Theory of Migration - Anu Kumar
Dream of the Housemaid - Shirani Rajapakse
X Does Not Mark My Spot - Roksana Badruddoja
Black Lead - Vinita Agrawal
Songkran - Chitra Viraraghavan
Siberian Cranes of Ambalamedu - Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
The Hajj of Canada Geese - Nettie Parker Bauman
Rabo Encendido - Glendaliz Camacho
The Earth Traveller - Bhargavi Chandrasekharan
Upsurge of the Unknown - Mayura Rao
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
-Richard Flanagan (Divya Dubey)
-Shashi Deshpande (Mita Bose)
The Competent Authority
-Shovon Chowdhury (Suneetha Balakrishnan)
-Indira Parthasarathy, translated by Padma Narayanan (Mariam Karim)
The Mirror of Beauty
-Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (Suneetha Balakrishnan)
A Family Secret
-Bijoya Saiwan (Mariam Karim)
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
-Haruki Murakami (Divya Dubey)
The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran
-Jennifer Klinec (Suneetha Balakrishnan)
I am Malala
-Malala Yousufazay co-written with Patricia McCormick (Mohd. Farhan)
More than Just Biryani
-Andaleeb Wajid (Divya Dubey)
No Ghosts in this City
-Uddipana Goswami (Suneetha Balakrishnan)
Arya and Other Stories
-Chandrika Balan (Mohd Farhan)
The Emperor's Riddles
-Satyarth Nayak (Monica Arora)
-Naomi Wood (Mita Bose)
Mai Al-Nakib is the winner of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2014 First Book Award with The Hidden Light of Objects. ELJ had a little chat with her after her recent win.
ELJ: Congratulations. You just won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2014 First Book Award with The Hidden Light of Objects. Do tell us about your entire experience.
M A-N: This was my first time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and it was a terrific experience. The festival was superbly organized, and I was happy to present on three panels. I presented The Hidden Light of Objects on a panel about the short story with Tom Barbash, the fine author of Stay Up with Me. I also presented on one of five panels organized by Raja Shehadeh on the experience of living and writing in the Middle East. In addition, I participated in this year’s Amnesty International Imprisoned Writer’s Series, highlighting the plight of so many writers all over the world. My panel focused on Syria. This year, 47 writers were nominated for the First Book Award. The winner is chosen by readers, which makes it an especially encouraging award to win. It means a great deal to me to know that readers from all over the world are finding points of connection with The Hidden Light of Objects. Perhaps this suggests that some are eager to discover other versions of the Middle East than those commonly depicted in the media. This is a gratifying thought.
ELJ: Was The Hidden Light of Objects inspired by any real-life experiences or incidents? One of your characters is a Palestinian teenager who ‘inadvertently becomes a suicide bomber’. How did you feel writing about this character?
M A-N: All the stories in the collection started with a fragment of some sort that compelled me. It could have been anything: an overheard snippet of conversation; an article in a newspaper or magazine; a vague memory, mine or someone else’s; a glimpsed object. Anything at all. The fragment would linger, compelling me to turn it into something more than a fragment. The stories took shape that way. I didn’t know in advance what was going to emerge. Sometimes I didn’t know until the final page, even the last paragraph, where the story would end. The not knowing is important – what would be the point of writing with a fully-formed goal in mind? To me, that would not be very fulfilling. By the third or fourth story, I began to notice certain parallels and connections between them, and so I had a sense that they would make up a collection. Generally, I was motivated to write these stories because I wanted to experiment with the process of remembering. I wanted to test the parameters of memory; how the things we remember impinge on the present in interesting, sometimes disturbing ways.
‘Playing with Bombs’ was inspired by a story I heard about a young person fiddling around with a small bomb in a garden, the bomb going off accidentally, resulting in her death. This happened decades ago in the West Bank. What struck me as the story was being recounted was how the family members felt compelled to frame the teenager as a martyr, a freedom fighter, a hero. All I could think about was how unfair it was that as a result of circumstances beyond her control, this particular teenager would never have the chance to just be young, to make mistakes, to fall in love. She had her life ahead of her and now all she was ever going to be was a martyr. I wanted to narrate a different trajectory; not a different outcome, but a different slant on the story. The details of the story are all completely invented, but, tragically, the accidental explosion is true.
ELJ: How did writing happen? How is being a Kuwaiti writer different from being a writer from any other part of the world?
M A-N: For me, writing developed as a result of reading. I read voraciously as a kid – everything I could get my hands on. My grandfather on my mother’s side studied English literature in India during the colonial period. People called him a walking encyclopedia. He loved to read and I remember that. He passed his love of reading on to my mother, who also studied English literature at university. My earliest memories are of my mother’s voice reading to me. Such things stay with you. At around the age of ten, I decided to try my hand at stringing words together, making them do unusual things. I kept a notebook, scribbling down everything. This writing habit never left me, and in one way or another, I’ve been writing my whole life – diaries, poetry, academic criticism. But it wasn’t until after I completed my degrees in literature and started teaching that I felt I could turn to writing fiction. It has taken me a long time to figure out that writing fiction feels most like home.
The experience of writing is specific to each writer’s particular history, language, location, experiences, and so on. As a writer from Kuwait, the specificities of my locale will likely affect my work, perhaps in ways it might be easier for others to see than for me to pinpoint. At the same time, I will not inevitably share characteristics with other writers from Kuwait just because we are citizens of the same country. There are other markers that matter more, in my opinion – from style and form to educational background and political persuasion, among many other things. Grouping writers based on nationality or other categorical divisions closes off the possibility of identifying more interesting connections between them.
ELJ: You escape the label of being a ‘diaspora’ writer, yet you understand an outsider’s perspective regarding your home country. How did you achieve this?
M A-N: This week I’ve been teaching Tayeb Salih’s remarkable novel, Season of Migration to the North. In it, one of the protagonists, Mustafa Sa’eed, dedicates a book ‘To those who see with one eye, speak with one tongue and see things as either black or white, either Eastern or Western.’ The pages following this dedication are blank, suggesting that seeing from one perspective is impossible. Sadly, as we know first hand, given the rise in fundamentalisms of all kinds, this isn’t exactly true. We’ve had far too much seeing with one eye in recent years, and the outcome for the region and the globe has not been good. The older I get, the more wary I am of assuming a single perspective on anything. I think I’ve become this way as a result of my personal circumstances – growing up between places, languages, and cultures – and also because of my academic involvement in comparative literature and postcolonial studies – fields that tend to be contrapuntal or stereoscopic in outlook.
ELJ: To what extent does politics play a role in your writing? How do you respond to military or religious events in your country personally?
M A-N: In most of my stories, we see characters grappling with specific aspects of their pasts, the pivotal, seemingly private moments that end up defining them. As it turns out, the personal is always overwritten by much broader historical and political conditions. The intimate obsessions of the characters, the accidents of their individual lives, are linked, inevitably, to a wider geography – both temporal and spatial – which they cannot, despite their best efforts outrun. Amerika Ahmed Al-Ahmed of ‘Amerika’s Box’ comes to mind, but so too does Nimr of ‘Playing with Bombs’ and Nader of ‘Elephant Stamp.’
My response to political, military, or religious events that affect the region and the lives of those around me is inseparable from the work I do as a professor and as a writer. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of injustice and violence, but the classroom provides a space in which to explore alternatives to the present, to discuss and debate issues, to read controversial material. Being able to cultivate this kind of space over the last decade has been a privilege for me and has, perhaps, helped me more than it has my students. The overwhelming conservatism and encroaching extremism in Kuwait and in the region – so different than the cosmopolitan world I grew up in – felt incredibly stifling to me, and one of the reasons I turned to fiction was as a way to remind myself that a different way of life had been possible in the past and could be possible still. The stories in the collection are vignettes that look simultaneously to the past and toward the future because the post-9/11 present feels (or felt, at the time I was writing) impossible.
ELJ: You are an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University. You teach postcolonial studies, literary theory, feminism and gender studies.How have these factors influenced or moulded your writing?
M A-N: I have been immersed in academic life for twenty years and there is no doubt in my mind that my academic interests have made me the writer I’ve become. On the other hand, I sometimes think it’s a miracle I’ve managed to escape my academic tendencies enough to write fiction! It can be a slippery terrain. The best way to learn how to write well is to read as closely and widely as possible. It’s certainly no guarantee, but I am convinced that the careful reading and teaching of literature can be immensely valuable to producing good writing. The theoretical and philosophical ideas that interest me in my academic life are those that inform my fiction as well – issues to do with chance, time, memory, singularity, the quotidian, alternatives to the present. Though it can sometimes be complicated – not to mention exhausting --I am grateful to have a foot in both worlds.
ELJ: A number of world events occur in your writing, such as the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam, the attacks of 9/11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and the US occupation of Iraq. What impact have these events had on you as a writer?
M A-N: Needless to say, recent political events have affected me as a person and as a writer in a variety of complicated ways, and it probably goes beyond the scope of this short interview to try to unpack some of their effects. As you mention, the stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are set mainly in the Middle East and engage familiar events in the region – the invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil war in Lebanon, the war in Iraq. However, the main focus is not on the complicated geopolitics of the region but, rather, on the everyday lives of the people who live here. It provides an alternative view to the one commonly represented in the media – both in the region and in the West. I did not set out to do this, but it seems to have happened anyway.
ELJ: How was your first book published? Was it difficult to find an agent/publisher?
M A-N: The world of publishing can be competitive. Perhaps, in some ways, it’s harder for an Arab writer based in the Middle East writing in English – not quite fitting into the world of Arabic language publishing, nor quite into the world of English language publishing. I did not spend time sending out short stories to literary magazines. I wanted to use that time to put together a complete collection. Once I felt like I had a final manuscript in hand, I did my research to figure out which publishing house would be a good fit for me. Bloomsbury has a history of publishing short story collections, plus they had a link to Qatar through the Qatar Foundation. It seemed perfect, so I sent out a query letter and sample chapters. They quickly asked to see the full manuscript, and a contract was signed soon after. I consider myself lucky because normally short story collections are published after novels. My novel will come out after the collection, which makes more sense to me.
ELJ: You are writing a novel now. Would you like to mention what it is all about?
M A-N: It is a polyphonic story about five women, set in the Middle East, India, and the United States, from the 1920s to the present. That’s all I feel comfortable saying about it for the moment.
ELJ: Do you see the short form of fiction as a gateway to the longer form? Which do you think is more challenging? Who are your favourite writers?
M A-N: Each form is important in its own right, with its own set of challenges and its own particular advantages. In choosing to start with short stories rather than the novel, I believed they would be more manageable, a ‘gateway,’ as you’ve put it, to the longer form. I don’t think I was right about this. While the brevity of the short story makes it appear to be more straightforward, this is deceptive. Short stories are limited in length, so they focus the reader’s attention quickly and carry them along at a speedier pace than the potentially more leisurely novel form. But this does not make the short story less demanding. In fact, because of its limited length, it can be harder to express everything you might want to in the shorter form. The novel, while potentially more unwieldy than the short story, provides sufficient time and space to experiment and digress, to inhabit characters more intimately, to develop a landscape more thoroughly, among other things. But the novel can be tricky precisely because of its length; there are more opportunities for narrative lines to slip and escape. This is both the challenge and delight of the novel as an imperfect form.
I would hate to limit my favorite writers to a list – they are a revolving pantheon! But a few who are always on it include Woolf, Beckett, Kafka, Rushdie, Márquez, Proust, Djebar, Kanafani. This summer I started reading the work of Tove Jansson. I’m drawn to her quiet but sharp observations. I’ve also been reading the marvelous Roberto Bolaño – seemingly far removed from Jansson, and yet it’s possible to find compelling points of comparison between the two. They both manage to convey an intense sense of foreboding and a deceptively sparse style, never easy to achieve.