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."
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