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Emirati fiction writer offers window onto reality of creative process

Ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, author Maha Gargash talks about writerly discipline and readerly support.

The author Maha Gargash published her first book, The Sand Fish, in 2009 and is at work on another that features a family of Emiratis.
The author Maha Gargash published her first book, The Sand Fish, in 2009 and is at work on another that features a family of Emiratis.

"It's very spicy!" says the Emirati author Maha Gargash of her new novel.

"The story is based in Cairo and Dubai, with its theme in the roots of a family. It's a cautionary tale about what bad roots can lead to and what is born out of deceit."

With the working title of her book a closely guarded secret, Gargash reveals only that her latest offering will be considerably longer than her first in 2009, The Sand Fish, which quickly became one of HarperCollins's top-selling titles in the Middle East and resulted in more than 25,000 copies being printed worldwide.

"I started the new book about two years ago," she says, "and I thought it would be finished by now. But there are so many layers to the story that it's not yet time to draw a conclusion. It's set between 1995-98 and the three main characters are related, interconnected - which is what's making it even longer, as you have to give each of them enough time to develop."

Born and bred in the UAE, Gargash studied in Washington, DC, and London before returning home to forge a successful career in television and documentary filmmaking. It was then, after more than two decades of scripting, directing and presenting sociocultural affairs, that she made her foray into the world of literature.

Her debut novel, The Sand Fish, is set in the 1950s and tells the poignant tale of Noora, a spirited young Emirati woman who wrestles with the traditions of her era and the prospect of a loveless arranged marriage. The author's second book, also featuring a family of Emiratis, tackles different issues and offers another glimpse into an Arabian society that still holds much mystique for readers worldwide.

Fearless and steadfast in her approach to storytelling, Gargash denies she's ever felt bound by convention to self-censor or dilute the content of her books.

"I think what I did was just not think about these things!" she says "With The Sand Fish, I later softened some bits that I thought were too open and I ended up taking a few bits out - but they really didn't affect the story or the narrative. And I don't think it was that risqué - I mean, some people didn't like the fact the girl did what she did, but that's personal opinion. You're not going to like everything you read."

That's not to say Gargash doesn't court her reader's affection. She relies on a trusty trio of friends to critique her work before it passes under an editor's nose and heads for mass market.

"Lina and Mimi read everything, chapter by chapter, and they are very verbal! They'll tell me: 'I don't like this … that's too clichéd; take this away', and strangely enough I follow their advice," she says, laughing. "Of course, I take it personally and we'll have a fight about it, but in the end and even if I'm feeling passionately about it, I'll just remove a big chunk and not remember having written it to begin with.

"My friend Ali helps me with local issues and gives me the male perspective of a world we can't see. He tells me how men think, could be insulted or would react in certain scenarios, for example. So I'm lucky to have very good friends who like to mull over these things and they push me to write, which is really a blessing."

When it comes to actually putting pen to paper, Gargash takes a disciplined but not regimental approach. No two days are the same, she says, with her writing time varying from two to eight hours. Getting started is the hard part.

"Writing is like exercise - you have to quickly put on your jogging shoes and just get out there, then you are fine," she says. "So what I do is open the computer and before I can change my mind, sit behind the desk, stare at the screen for five minutes and then just start typing. Otherwise I'll be looking for any excuse not to write, like cleaning the windows."

A peaceful household, regular coffee breaks and the occasional turn around the garden for inspiration might best describe an average day for Gargash while she is in the throes of completing her current novel. However, she's candid about the mental pressures writers face as they endeavour to create an atmosphere, describe complex relationships, keep the dialogue sparkling and pace a story well to its climax.

"With writer's block, if it's a really heavy block, then there's usually a real problem," she says "There may be an issue with the logic, for example, and it's often hard to pinpoint. You basically have to look at the story and shred it to bits to see where the problem is. If it happens, I have my friends, so I'll sit with them, throw things at them and usually we manage to get it flowing again."

"But you need to have a lot of patience," she adds, "and it can be a very lonely job sitting alone for many hours - just you and what's in your head."

It's questions about the frustrations, isolation but also the gratification of a creative career that Gargash will likely field when she participates at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this March.

"I would tell aspiring writers to write, write, write," she says. "If you have the passion, then put your head to it and come up with something great."

Alongside her fellow novelist Selma Dabbagh and Silent Night author Charles Ellingworth, Gargash is delighted to find herself in esteemed company once again this year.

"It's a privilege to be asked to join because so many of the writers are heroes of mine," she says "It's a great event and very enjoyable because you get to spread the beautiful activity of reading to different people who come to attend."

Gargash will also partner with the distinguished poet Nujoom Al Ghanem who, in conjunction with Khalid Al Budoor, produced the award-winning documentary Hamama. Holding one of the festival's workshops on March 10, the duo will seek to demystify the process of crafting and adapting scripts for film, with particular emphasis on capturing a bygone age with authenticity.

For Gargash, film may be an equally prevalent part of her future as it was in her past, for the idea of seeing her novels grace the big screen is something she relishes.

"I would love that," she says. "But it's very difficult. I have sent it [The Sand Fish] to a few people in the States, but I think you have to know the right people and have someone to lobby for it, push the script. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Much like publishing, the film world is a business and it has a lot to do with timing."

For now, Gargash is squarely focused on the perfect timing of her new novel's publication.

"I'm at a stage where it's very difficult to predict how long it will take," she says "Things are unfolding and one twist is leading to another, so I'm still writing it. But hopefully it will come soon."

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2012 will be held from March 6 to 10 at Al Mamzar & InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. For more information visit www.emirateslitfest.com.

rduane@thenational.ae

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