Lilas Taha’s Bitter Almonds encompasses the pain of exile
When Lilas Taha decided to follow her dream and write a novel, outwardly it was no different a process to that which countless aspiring authors have undertaken.
But though literary history is littered with examples of frustrated writers ditching their day jobs for the lure of the written word – in Taha’s case, she is an electrical engineer by training – not many have the kind of rich background she could draw on.
Born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, she left for the United States after the Gulf War.
“When I saw what was happening in Syria, that’s when I started writing,” she says. “Watching these horrendous images on television, knowing these people and places, I just needed to express myself. Honestly, I initially had no intention of publishing anything.”
Still, she nervously showed a few people her early drafts and they gradually developed into her first book, Shadows of Damascus, which explored the relationship between a young American soldier and a Syrian girl who marry to escape the atrocities in her home country. Naturally their story isn’t a straightforward one.
Published by a small American, independent, royalty-paying, romantic-fiction publisher last year, the book caught the attention of Bloomsbury, who signed her up for a follow-up, which will be published on Thursday.
Bitter Almonds, then, is a much bigger deal in all senses of the word.
“Looking back, Shadows of Damascus feels like a training wheel now,” Taha says from her home in Texas. “I’m absolutely over the moon to have this opportunity to tell this story to the world.”
Looking as far back as Jerusalem in 1948 and chronicling nearly 20 years in the lives of Palestinian exiles in Damascus searching for a sense of home, Bitter Almonds is also a much more ambitious novel. But Taha hesitates to describe it as a novel of particularly epic political or social scope.
“If you’re Palestinian, you can’t escape politics,” she says. “But people do go on with their lives, they have the same emotions as everyone else – they just adjust to their circumstances.
“That doesn’t belittle the sense of loss they often have, it’s just that I really wanted to show they have always been regular people, too. The human desire to keep going is elemental to the book. They find a way to make a better life for their children.”
Such emphasis on deeply human experiences means that, much like Shadows of Damascus, there is a love story at Bitter Almonds’ heart. Taha has no qualms about that.
“Isn’t there always a love story in life?” she asks with a smile.
In the book, orphaned Omar’s gradually developing love for a young refugee keeps him sane amid the chaos of displacement and exile – life-changing situations that both of Taha’s books have explored – so it’s no surprise to learn that she understands those feelings more keenly than most.
Bitter Almonds, she reveals, started out as a way of engaging her father, who became depressed after emigrating three times and suffering with health problems. Sadly, he died just a few months before Taha signed her deal with Bloomsbury.
“Exile defines me,” she says. “I was born and grew up in Kuwait to parents from Palestine and Syria so that identity has always been part of me, always there. Even though they never rammed home my heritage, I do feel Palestinian. When you see what’s happening in these places and you’re living far away, it’s crippling, honestly.” So novel writing has become Taha’s crutch, which is all the more impressive given that her first written language was Arabic.
She admits she had doubts about language, voice and structure, but emotional and practical support from local writers’ groups encouraged her to keep going. Still, the backing of a big publisher such as Bloomsbury means that all of a sudden the kind of light Taha shines on her characters and their political upheavals will come under far greater scrutiny. “I do feel a sense of responsibility for the communities I’m writing about – and belong to,” she says.
“But it isn’t a technical history of the region – I want people around the world to care about my characters more than anything. And if they do connect with them, maybe then that would prompt them to explore Palestine or Syria more deeply, and possibly empathise with its people.”
One very early reaction to Bitter Almonds certainly underlines her point. “I was just finishing the book and I took it to a critique group I’m a part of,” she says. “One guy was Jewish-American and a definite supporter of Israel. And at the end of the book, he told me: ‘You created a dilemma for me. You made me care about a Palestinian person’. “And that, in the end, is all I was looking for.”
• Bitter Almonds will be published by Bloomsbury on Thursday