Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Voice for Her People: Susan Abulhawa's Writing Life Interview

by Matt Rees

Susan Abulhawa is a unique voice in contemporary fiction. She’s a Palestinian, born in Kuwait to a refugee family. She spent some years in an orphanage in East Jerusalem, her ancestral city, before university education in the US and she now lives near Philadelphia. She’s the founder of a wonderful charity, Playgrounds for Palestine, which aims to bring merry-go-rounds, slides and see-saws to the children of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. As you’ll see from this interview, Susan’s writing life revolves around a leap she made at which many would balk. So that she could write her wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin, she mortgaged her house, went to a war zone, and returned with a passionate drive to write. What she wrote is a wrenching portrayal of a Palestinian family from 1948 – the foundation of Israel, which Palestinians call the “nakba,” the catastrophe – on through the civil war in Beirut and the second intifada. Mornings in Jenin is a bestseller whose poetic prose carries the resonance of the best Arabic fiction (writing which, due to the relative paucity of translation into English, we rarely get to enjoy; Susan wrote her novel in English). This many-faceted book has at its heart the most profound and tragic love-story imaginable. As a depiction of a violent history and of the bonds between lovers and siblings, Abulhawa’s novel gives a human voice to a people so often cast as a stereotype. How does she do it? Here’s what she has to say:

How long did it take you to get published?

It felt like forever. There was an 8 years span from the time I started writing Mornings in Jenin until it was finally published in 2010.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I’ve never read a book on writing. I’m told that I should and I probably will one of these days. When I was writing Mornings in Jenin, I did get one as a gift. But I didn’t get beyond the first chapter. I don’t think my hesitation had anything to do with the book’s merits though. I just put it down when it talked about developing an outline or sketch of the story. I knew that I would never do that – write an outline or think ahead. So I just didn’t invest any more time in something that was going to lead me in a direction that my brain would not appreciate. I’m not a planner by nature. I follow my heart, usually into disasters and heartaches. But sometimes it takes me into miracles. Regardless, I’m just not very good at following instructions. The book I got was more or less that, or at least that’s how I perceived it and that’s why I put it down. That said, I just read Tony Parson’s answer to this exact question and he mentioned writing at least 1000 words a day. Apparently he got that advice from a book and I’m taking it from him. It’s a good bit of advice and has served me well for the past few days since I read it.

I’m sure Tony will be glad to hear it. What’s a typical writing day?

I would get up at 5am, make coffee, and sit at my keyboard and write straight through until it was time to wake my daughter up for school at 8am [she was in elementary at the time; now she’s up at 6 so that timing doesn’t work as well]. Then I’d start again from 9:30 until noon. The rest of the day I spent helping out at my daughter’s school, running or yoga, and a million other things single moms do.

That was then, when I had mortgaged my house for its full value so I could afford not to work and concentrate on writing. Now I’m paying off that mortgage and have to work a full time job as a medical writer, putting those biology degrees to some use. So I write when I can. Usually in the wee hours of the morning, in rare moments of blissful quiet and solitude, on trains, or when I’m depressed and therefore don’t care if everything else piles up.

How would you describe what “Mornings in Jenin” is about? And of course tell us why’s it so great?

It’s a story of love, and how that love is shaped by violence and persistent oppression – Love between a farmer and his land; between siblings; between a man and a woman; a mother and her children; a father and his children; love between friends. I think it’s up to readers to decide if it’s great or not. I’ll say that I put my heart into it. That ultimately my intentions in writing this story distilled to a single purpose – to be true to the characters by telling their stories with honestly, authenticity, and humanity.

“Mornings in Jenin” was written in English, but the style is much more poetic than a typical American novel. Were you aiming to capture something of the style of Arabic prose?

I wasn’t aiming for that at all, but I do think that it seeped in because Arabic poetry was my first exposure to literature. Arabic was the first language I learned to read and write and my early writings were Arabic poetry. I came to the US at the age of 13 and from then on, my education and social environment was all conducted in English. Now, my command of English is more sophisticated than my command of Arabic; but it seems my “literary foundation” is Arabic poetry; and that came through my English writing.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

There are so many sentences that I read and re-read just to savor and contemplate their beauty, both in English and in Arabic. I don’t have a single favorite. But when I read this question, the first thing that came to mind was a passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I looked it up to quote it accurately, and here it is: “…and that is how in the ripeness of autumn she began to believe once more in the youthful superstition that poverty was the servitude of love….Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of loving each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out old people they kept on blooming like little children and played together like dogs.”

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Again, while there are many perfect and beautiful descriptions, what comes immediately to mind is a line from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He describes the austerity of Puritan society as “accomplishing so much precisely because they imagined and hoped so little.” In that same novel, when Hester Prynne is standing on the scaffold, Hawthorne writes that “the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.”

There are profound truths in each of these sentences. You can follow them straight into the human soul.

How much research was involved in your book and how did you carry it out?

40 years of life. A lot of books, oral histories, documentaries. A lot of watching people, observing, contemplating. And of course, the internet.

Where’d you get the idea for your main characters? Is there an autobiographical element to Amal’s life?

Although Amal is a very different person than I am, I suppose there are some parallels between Amal’s life and mine. She attends Dar el Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem and that chapter is essentially autobiographical. I put Amal in my life for the three years when I lived there. Amal also ends up in the United States, alone with a daughter. That is another aspect where our lives are similar. Otherwise, she is not me.

You’re also an activist. What makes you want to write a novel, rather than devoting the time purely to activism? Does creative writing make you a better activist?

I’ve been called an activist and may have even accepted that label at times, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it because it’s a word that resonates with others in vastly different ways. I’m a person who opposes injustice when I see it. I write about it, expose it, and work against it however I can. I’m also a person who looks for beauty. I write about it, expose it, and work to promote it. I think we’re on this planet to lift each other up and leave gentleness in our place when we leave. That’s how I would describe my “activism”. Both that, and my first novel are made from love. Both are true expression of who I am. I don’t know if one aspect feeds the other, nor do I think it matters. What matters to me is that I continue to learn, grow, and give to others through both ‘activism’ and literary endeavors.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

I’m really not very good at marketing at all. I suppose some book sales have come from my activism, specifically from people who knew of me through a children’s NGO that I founded years ago, called Playgrounds for Palestine.

Most of the book sales have been generated by word of mouth, I think. I do make it a point to write back to any reader who takes the time to write to me. I’m also happy to add them as Facebook friends when they request it. So, I suppose being more accessible to readers is a plus. Sometimes readers learn of my book when I write an opinion piece online or op-ed in a newspaper on current affairs. Other than that, I’ve not done much myself to market Mornings in Jenin. That might explain why I still have to keep a day job. 

What’s your experience with being translated?

Mornings in Jenin is now in 26 languages. Arabic is due to be released in October of 2011. That’s the only one I can personally verify. Overall, I have a lot of respect for translators – the good ones who really make an effort to render the intended meaning of a text and not just the literal translation, which as you know can be very different. I heard a funny thing about the Dutch translation. When Amal is in the orphanage, the girls warm their hands on a steel pipe that vents steam from the kitchen. It was their only source of heat and the girls would scramble just to put their hands on it. The scene was: dozens of girls reaching over each other to get a moment’s worth of heat. The translation was literal; so the “hot pipe” that girls clamored to touch ended up having a very phallic connotation that had nothing to do with the meaning of that passage in the book.

Did you write other books or published fiction before “Mornings in Jenin” was published?

No. I had contributed to anthologies and a scientific textbook. Other writings were single publications of literary nonfiction, political commentary, and scientific or medical papers. Mornings in Jenin is my first novel. It actually marks the first time I even thought of myself as a writer.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

A local orthodox Jewish community in New York protested and harassed the bookstore into canceling my book signing. When they did, other members of the community held a counter protest and lobbied the bookstore to honor their invitation to me. So the store “compromised” and asked me to come, but only for a signing, not a reading. I was downgraded.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

A book on the relationship between Muslim people and dogs. I come from a Muslim family and I love dogs. These two identities can be irreconcilable because the dominant belief among Muslims is that angels do not enter a home where dogs dwell. While there are scriptures and Hadith to back this up, there is also evidence that Muslims have it all wrong…or at least they don’t have the whole story, according to history. That said, the risk of being misunderstood is quite high compared to the low chance of actually changing attitudes toward dogs – those loyal, self-sacrificing, love machines.

No comments: