Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The author Jana Elhassan. Courtesy Asia House
The author Jana Elhassan. Courtesy Asia House

Transforming Arab fiction

A new generation of Arab writers are 'changing the rules', said the author Mohammed Hassan Alwan.

Arab fiction is going through a "transformation", a crowd at London's Asia House heard last week during a talk from two of the writers shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

The 34-year-old Mohammed Hassan Alwan, who was born in Riyadh and has an MBA from the University of Portland, Oregon, read in English from his book The Beaver, in which a Saudi Arabian man in his 40s retraces the story of his troubled family while fishing in the United States.

He discussed his inspiration, aims and a new generation of Arab writers, from a multitude of countries, who are currently "changing the rules" - "We are trying to be experimental," he said.

The other writer present was Jana Fawaz Elhassan, a 26-year-old Lebanese journalist, translator and novelist who drew from her own life for her novel Me, Her and the Other Women, about a woman who invents an imaginary version of her life to deal with an unhappy marriage.

"I come from a conservative society in which writing was somehow taboo," she said, in conversation with the broadcaster and journalist Bidisha. "I was married to someone who thought that I shouldn't write, that I should stay as a schoolteacher for the rest of my life, so writing was something that I had to fight for."

The IPAF was launched five years ago to promote Arab writers and encourage more of their work to be translated. It's worked, Elhassan said in conversation after the debate. "When I first published the novel the audience was local, there were only Lebanese people interested. I think the IPAF has given us a great exposure to a wider audience."

Increasing interest from western readers, however, can lead to a new type of anxiety, said Elhassan. "If you're writing about problems in the Middle East, how will readers in the West react? Will they embrace [the complexity] and say it's normal; that, just like we have problems, they have problems? You don't want your literature to be used as evidence [to back up negative stereotypes.]"

Religion as a way of controlling people and the position of women in Lebanese society are two themes addressed in Elhassan's novel.

Alwan is "very much conscious of stereotypes", having encountered hostility and curiosity while living in the US after the September 11 attacks. Although he pointed out that Saudi Arabia is a young country (it turned 80 last year) and said that societies "are just like people; they behave and feel a certain way at different stages", he's frustrated by Americans who see the country as inherently "mysterious".

While his novel The Beaver looks at memory and the way that distance from a situation can provide clarity, and Me, She and the Other Women focuses on imagination as a means for solace and self-expression, both novels are intensely personal and both authors felt compelled to write. "It's a psychological need, to be a writer," Alwan said. "For me, writing is kind of a protective shield. Writing is a way of recharging the batteries, of understanding the world."

Elhassan started writing in secret as a teenager, too afraid to show anyone her work. She read constantly and remembers crying her way through favourite books, feeling characters such as Anna Karenina as real, flesh-and-blood acquaintances. "Sometimes I read something," she said, "and I know exactly what the character is going through. If they're going through hard times, and they make it, I feel like I can make it. That's what I wish [to inspire] with my fiction."

When asked if it was difficult to talk frankly about the intimate details of a marriage, she said that it wasn't, because honesty is crucial for her. "When you write in this way, you're ready to bear the repercussions, because you know you're doing the right thing. This is a part of everyone's life."

 

artslife@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National