The new novel by the Pulitzer Prize finalist is set among the expat oil workers in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s - where she finds resonances with her own upbringing.
Kingdom comes easily in Kim Barnes's new oil tale
When a writer sets herself the task of writing about Saudi Arabia from the comfort of her home in Idaho in the US, alarm bells naturally start ringing. But this wasn't the usual creative writing exercise. The author was the Pulitzer Prize finalist Kim Barnes and she was intrigued by the stories of her uncle, a roughneck oil worker who went to the kingdom in the 1960s to supervise drilling. He lived - as so many did - in the strange quasi-American suburbia of Aramco's compounds. Before long, Barnes had found a narrative in what happens when "you take a bunch of healthy men and women and fence them up in the middle of the desert", as one of her characters memorably notes.
"Honestly, I did want to go to Saudi Arabia," she laughs. "But it became clear that the time and place I was writing about was long gone, that to visit might actually confuse matters."
What's impressive about the result, In the Kingdom of Men, is that you would never know Barnes wrote it from such a distance. Her tale set amid Aramcons (the term for Saudi Aramco expatriates) certainly highlights all the potential for conflicts one might expect when American and Arab cultures collide. But gradually, she started to find ways in which ostensibly opposite lives were in fact remarkably similar.
"You know, the parallels became strangely profound," says the 54-year-old author. "I also grew up in a very isolated environment; my father was a logger so we were very nomadic. I grew up in Pentecostal fundamentalism, which taught separation from the world. I'm no longer involved in that faith but we weren't allowed to cut our hair because it was our veil of modesty. We had to wear long sleeves, collars up to our necks, skirts down to our calves. We were taught silence and submissiveness, that men ruled over women in moral, spiritual and domestic affairs.
"So as I began writing my protagonist Gin, one thing really struck me: as Americans we like to think that our culture has always been so different from the things we read regarding women in Saudi Arabia. But it's absolutely not true. The idea that a Saudi woman has to have a male guardian, that she can't move freely... all that was completely familiar to me. And in the book, Gin begins to notice the similarities, too."
Gin McPhee is the book's force of nature. She follows her husband to Khobar after a turbulent American upbringing only to find her inquisitive disposition getting the better of her. She's drawn into a murky world of institutionalised racism and underhand dealings, all the while trying to treat her Punjabi houseboy Yash as an equal. She risks everything to leave the compound and take photographs during the Six Day War.
"In the context of a woman's life almost any adventure story is also a cautionary tale," says Barnes, "and I already have book clubs in the Middle East who are reading the novel and find themselves discussing issues of women, freedom and liberties. I remind them that liberty and personal freedom is not just a women's issue - or one that has geographical restrictions."
This thoughtful approach prevents In the Kingdom of Men from slipping into Arab caricature. If anything, the gossipy Western women are cliched. Instead, Barnes reads voraciously, and quotes everything from Fadia Basrawi's famous memoir to Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt during our conversation. She cites, with some regret, some research that proves "no other peoples have been more demonised in film than Arabs".
"And yet the thing that really gives me hope is the absolute sincerity of the friendship struck up between Aramcons and Saudis, even though it was initially based on issues of colonialisation and racism. So I hope people do take away from this book that what happens in the Middle East is not about a particular religion, corporation or even oil. It's about people. All my characters are trying to make sense of their lives, as we all do, every day."