At first, scared that her novels would be labelled biographies, Miral Al Tahawy relied heavily on the figurative and the ambiguous to hide the true contents of her narratives. "I was like any other Arab woman writer trying to avoid misinterpretation of her writing," the Egyptian novelist said. However, as the years rolled by, Al Tahawy realised that writing was all about daring and guts, and soon transformed herself from the shy tribal girl she was to the famous award-winning novelist she is today. Al Tahawy, whose latest creation, Brooklyn Heights, has been heralded as a masterpiece, spoke to Weekend Review about her literary journey.
Your novels seem to be rooted in the past and you have a tendency to resurrect characters from your earlier books. The events of your novels are also extracted from ethnography and realism and recollected from childhood memories. Why is that?
One cannot write without the facts to support his/her story. Take Brooklyn Heights, for example. It is based on frankness and clarity, and I think my immigration helped this narrative style to mature. Reading in different languages also honed my literary skills — I think the beauty of the language used is a strong element in making it appealing to readers. They like the sense of reality my books portray and the descriptive narrative style.
You said you write about your realities and memories because it allows you to create an alternate reality with some degree of freedom and self-fulfilment. What horizons has this opened up for you?
We really don't know how an idea flows into a writer's mind. It subconsciously creeps up on the writer and surprises them in a private moment, and they discover that there are tiny, neglected details in memories that jump up all of a sudden, carrying with them deep and meaningful indications. Childhood is a springboard for such memories. For Arab woman writers, self-censorship merged with fear is a huge obstacle in the path of their creative pursuits. Freedom from such fears gives her spacious horizons to see reality. My writing in general is a mix of personal experiences and observations. I mean, a writer cannot write about Damascus, for example, if he/she is staying in Yemen. The human experience is very necessary, besides, of course, reading and being aware of what's going on in the world.
Women form a focal point in your writings, and your novels are driven towards liberation and freedom. Is there a relationship among these elements?
Yes. This triangle has become a very important part of my literary journey; my pen is not interested in topics in which women, freedom and liberation are not the focal points. This could be because I was raised in a conservative environment, or maybe because I, like the rest of my generation, have experienced serious sociopolitical changes and a radical makeover in Egyptian society. After all, as they say, a writer is the son of his culture and time.
Your novel ‘Brooklyn Heights' was awarded the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 2010 and was nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2011. It was also published in English in December last year. How do you handle the success and the responsibility?
I'm lucky to be one of those writers whose novels got translated early. The Veil was translated into more than 15 languages and won a number of awards. And this happened when I was at the start of my career. Writing requires a lot of concentration, especially if you are occupied with other responsibilities as well. Besides being a novelist, I'm also a mother and a professor at Arizona University.
‘The Tent' and ‘The Blue Aubergine' spoke about the bitterness of oppression in conservative societies. Did you encounter difficulties with your community and your family for such open writing?
I'm a daughter of a conservative tribe and have lived through all the harsh traditional experiences women have to go through. When I was a girl, I found myself in the oppressive isolation that is imposed on women to keep them, as the conservative rules say, ‘protected'. But the writer within me revolted against such unjustified concepts. I have fortunately found my own world now through my writing.
You attended the Sharjah Book Fair in November last year. Did you meet the Emirati authors? Is there any particular work you like?
I shared a good rapport with all the Emirati writers and I appreciate their writings. I also read the special issue of the Banipal magazine on Arab female writers, and even taught some of their novels to my university students. I am optimistic about the rise of the female Arab writers and believe the coming years will add weight to the Middle East's literary scene.
Fatma Salem is an Emirati writer based in Dubai.