Why Write Arab Fiction?
Kuwaiti journalist Saud Alsanousi is the acclaimed author of The Bamboo Stalk, which won the prestigious International Prize for Arab Fiction (colloquially known as the “Arab Booker”) in 2013, and the forthcoming MAMA HISSA’S MICE. Widely recognized as one of the most important literary voices in the Arab world, Alsanousi’s work has also won a host of other awards, including the Laila Al-Othman Prize and the “Stories on the Air” competition sponsored by the BBC.
The following is an excerpt from a recent speech he delivered at the First Asian Writers Forum in Kazakhstan, about the importance of writing fiction—and its power to affect change in the wider world:
The page gives me the absolute freedom to say what I want, how I want, which is impossible in my constricted reality.
Only writing gives me the chance to be myself and someone else at the same time. I know that other person deeply and can make him understand me without ever meeting. Even if writing hasn’t taught me everything about the world, it has brought me closer to doing so: when I am the storyteller and the characters I am writing about granting me access—the tyrant and the tyrannized; a man, a child, a woman, and an old man; rich and poor; the beloved and the pariah; a sparrow, an ant, a tree. To be in the shoes of a murderer, to understand him without shedding a drop of blood, or to be murdered, to experience his feelings without dying. To be the prisoner without shackles digging into my wrists, comprehending the true sense of freedom, yearning for it even more for others and myself.
Milan Kundera said, “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.” I wholly concur, having achieved on paper what I could never achieve off the page: in The Bamboo Stalk, I became destitute in a rustic Filipino village; I prayed in a church, in a mosque, in a Buddhist temple, and in nature, and found god in myself. While writing Mama Hissa’s Mice, I became both a radical Sunni and a radical Shi’a, feeling the conflict between the two, leading to the death of both in myself, only to escape this battle of fanaticism unscathed, freed from the inheritance of fire and blood.
I became an expert oud player, an instrument whose strings have never surrendered themselves to me in real life, never singing my words and melodies to the universe. Through writing, I became a grandmother and her endlessly curious grandson. In Pigeons of the House, I tried losing my sight in order to truly explore my sense of vision. I became the brother and his sibling, the son and his father, the carrier pigeon who always returns. In Saliha’s Camel, I became a young Bedouin woman perched atop her camel crossing the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, chasing the sun toward the country of her dreams, which she never reaches. But she remains content and confident in spite of not reaching her destination because she realizes the truth: arriving is more of a hardship than setting out; the hopeful journey is life, and arriving is death.
Only through writing have I brought my loved ones back to life. I planted a garden at an old house where the trees had died when my grandmother died, and I brought my grandmother back to life with new trees. I reclaimed my childhood by fleeing from the adult world I don’t identify with. In writing, I gave birth to a boy like me, I witnessed his birth, imagined his beginnings and left the end to him.
Through writing, I dream of talking about my nation with all its contradictory faces, a blue memory for a yellow nation, coasts, deserts, thirsty palm trees, mud houses built by the sun, wooden ships scaling the crests of waves en route to India and Africa, camel caravans interminably roaming the desert, old souks filled with the aromas of crackling fish, spices, Arabic perfumes and incense. I dream of my Kuwait, like Tayyeb Saleh’s Sudan, or Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo, Tagore’s India, Rasul Hamzatov’s Dagestan, Kawabata’s Japan, Garcia Marquez’s Colombia or Victor Hugo’s Paris. I keep my country from forgetting, as each day it dons a new dress of cold, silent concrete.
By writing, I battle against forgetting and death, because I fear that I will forget or be forgotten. Writing gives me a chance to speak to those who survive me, who might come to know—through my words—a distant past. By writing, I believe I am repairing the world. I discovered the world within, and I spend my time writing to mend the fractures in my soul left behind by the distant past.
∞ ∞ ∞
Saud Alsanousi’s latest novel, MAMA HISSA’S MICE, is a sardonic depiction of present-day Kuwait, as well as a frank examination of the divisive extremes that have rendered the author’s native country almost unrecognizable from the one in which he was born. It was released on November 12, 2019.