The Egyptian author Miral Al Tahawy's new novel is based on her experience as a new immigrant to the United States, at the time of Barack Obama's historic election to the presidency
Life that is neither here nor there
When Barack Obama won his groundbreaking first term as president of the United States, the Egyptian author Miral Al Tahawy had only just settled in the US. It was an incredible time, she remembers, even for someone from her part of the world. "It felt a little like Obama belonged to us all, somehow," she says. "It meant that the minority could feel that it was possible for everyone to have their 'moment', it was such a sign of hope. But sadly, they were all just dreams."
It feels strangely apt that her fourth novel, Brooklyn Heights, was published in English in the month that Obama won another four years at the White House, not least because the book begins with Hend, a woman in her late 30s, arriving in New York during the presidential election. She has her 8-year-old son tucked under one arm, having fled a marriage and a country. Wearing badges emblazoned with "Change", they watch the "cataclysmic enthusiasm" of New Yorkers welcoming in the first black president. As Hend realises, they are attaching themselves to words that "make them feel they have become part of this map, a part of its deepest aspirations".
But Hend, initially, has no work. She lives in an apartment "no bigger than a small matchbox with a window". As she ponders her fraught existence in a strange land, she is repeatedly drawn back to the colourful, often painful, memories of her childhood in Egypt. It's a solemn, quiet book which nevertheless deserved its shortlisting in the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
"When I arrived in America, there was a really sudden moment, where I could see the place where I came from and understood the distance I was from it," she says from Arizona, where she works at Arizona State University. "I really wanted to try and capture that in a novel. Perhaps you can't understand yourself and your country unless you are somewhere else and can look at your home from a different perspective."
Al Tahawy is keen to emphasise that Brooklyn Heights is a work of fiction, but it certainly reflects her own experiences - mourning the death of her mother and approaching her 40s, she also brought her young son to Brooklyn as she began a post-doctoral fellowship. But she's wise to draw on her own life; it lends an authenticity to a character who is lonely, often depressed and not exactly easy to admire.
"When I came to America, I did feel free for the first time," she says of a life that has seen her become involved in gender politics and campaigns for women's rights and social freedoms in Egypt.
"You leave your home country not necessarily to find happiness but because you see the country collapsing everywhere around you. When that happens, it becomes impossible to think about your future."
What Al Tahawy found, and explores through Hend, is that the complications don't cease when you leave.
"You seek acceptance and integration, but you soon realise you can't really become a part of American culture. The sad thing is, you're geographically in America, but you really live somewhere else when you close the front door - the place of your memory. I was really thinking about this when I was writing about Hend."
The book itself has an interesting identity, too: it doesn't have the warm, tight plotting of a second generation Arab-American author such as Diana Abu-Jaber and is more recognisably, as Al Tahawy admits, an "Arab novel". But she hopes it can "dance between two cultures".
"That's the space I was trying to explore, both in the narrative and the style," she says. "Hend is basically a mirror to talk about the kind of societies we have in Egypt and America. What the book ends up saying is that actually we're pretty similar. It's not, in the end, so much about where you are. What defines you is your identity as a human being, your personal history."
As for Al Tahawy, does she now feel at home in America? "Honestly, since the revolution in Egypt, it feels like I'm living in one place and my soul is somewhere else. But this other home has lost its usual meaning in that it's not safe and secure. What I can say is that living here has set me free, let me grow and given my life and writing a different perspective."
But there is a downside. "It's so hectic, so, well, American," she laughs, "that I now can't find time to write a new novel."
• Brooklyn Heights by Miral Al Tahawy (Faber) is out now