x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Summer Reads: Maha Gargash's favourite books

The Emirati writer reveals to us her favourite books and why, after 20 years in a different profession, she still loves writing.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

The Emirati writer Maha Gargash reveals to us her favourite books and why, after 20 years in a different profession, she still loves writing.

Maha Gargash has always enjoyed reading.

"Even as a child I devoured books," she says. "These days I read more than ever. As a writer, I realise how important it is, but also I read because I enjoy it."

The bestselling author of The Sand Fish was born in Dubai but studied in Washington, DC, and London. She completed a degree in radio and television before returning to Dubai to pursue a career as a documentary maker. In fact, she never intended to be a writer and spent 20 years making films before she wrote her first book.

These days she devotes herself to writing full time.

"The two mediums are so different but they can complement each other," she says. "For example, I used to do my own scriptwriting for documentaries. But it's very different to writing a novel."

So what inspired her to write The Sand Fish?

"I was interested in telling the story that is the subject of The Sand Fish, and I wanted to write about this area [Dubai] in the past. Not many books have been set here. In fact, there's very little written information about the area. So for me it was a big challenge."

It was a challenge that paid off, however. The Sand Fish, published in 2009, quickly became one of HarperCollins' best-selling novels in the Middle East, selling more than 25,000 copies and establishing Gargash as a respected writer. It also broke new ground with its subject matter: based in Dubai in the 1950s, it tells the story of a rebellious young woman trapped in a restrictive society.

Gargash is aware that she's among a new generation of Emirati writers, given that there is little history of a literary tradition in this part of the world. She points out, however, that that is fast changing.

"The literature scene here is growing year-on-year and it's very dynamic. It's really exciting to be part of it," she says.

Now in the process of writing a modern novel set in the UAE in the 1990s, she says she is finding it easier to write than her first book. "It's more modern and so I have less research to do," she explains, adding that she has no intention of returning to making documentaries, having found her true calling.

"I'm enjoying the whole 'writerly' thing," she says. "I love to write, but equally I love the freedom that comes with it. Put it this way - I love the lifestyle of a writer."

This lifestyle also allows her more time to read. She favours fiction over fact. "If I'm interested in a particular person, I will read their biography or memoir, but mostly I read fiction. And I really like historical fiction.

"Well-written books appeal to me and I read any chance I get but rarely during the day. I always read in bed at night. It's the best way to fall asleep."

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

"The God of Small Things appeals to me for a number of reasons. I like the fact that I can read it over and over again. It starts at the end of the story with the death of one of the characters and you don't know why he died. Then it finishes at the beginning. This way of writing is very clever because you can't figure out what's happening. It makes you want to read on."

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

"Set in Mumbai in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the Indian Emergency - a period of expanded government power and crackdowns on civil liberties - this book is about four people from varied backgrounds who develop a deep bond. I really admire Rohinton Mistry's ability to describe detail. It's as if he has tentacles all over his body and is able to pick up the smallest of things. The pace of his writing in this book is also beautiful - it never bores you."

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

"I first read Pride and Prejudice a long time ago but it's a book I find myself returning to time and time again because it's so detailed, and I always find something new about it. Am I a romantic? I like the concept of romance, but I would not describe myself as a romantic. This book appeals to me nonetheless."

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

"A comic novel based on the plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan. It's a very witty story that is rooted in fact and it has a dark, satirical side to it. It's quite unique."

An Atlas of Impossible Longing - Anuradha Roy

"I'm reading An Atlas of Impossible Longing at the moment and really enjoying it. It's about a family living on the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, an eastern India state. There are lots of twists and turns to the plot so it keeps your interest at all times. I'm always happy to find a book that is well written."