Interview: Hanan Al-Shaykh, author of The Locust and the Bird

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

By Laurel Rhame

“I feel as if [my mother's] life and essence mock Western stereotypes that obscure, much like the actual veil itself, the face of many an Arab woman.”

Kamila’s story reads like a novel: she was born in Lebanon, never allowed to attend school, and married against her will when she was only 14 years old. She could not read or write for herself, something that bothered her all of her life. What she wanted more than almost anything else was to tell her own story; she wanted her voice heard. So she called upon her daughter.

Hanan Al-Shaykh was a respected novelist who had used her past for inspiration, but she intentionally avoided picking up a pen on behalf of her mother for years. Al-Shaykh already knew a fair amount of her mother’s past: she remembered when her mother asked for a divorce from her father (a man 18 years her senior) to marry the man she had been seeing in secret for years. Al-Shaykh remembered how her mother had not fought for custody of her two children during her divorce. She remembered her mother leaving the family to begin her life again. What she remembered was hurtful, and she was less than eager to devote time and attention recounting it.

It was only after she finally agreed to write her mother’s story that Al-Shaykh was able to uncover truths she had never known. Her mother was willful and brave. She dreamed of attending school, and when that was not a possibility, she found an escape in films at the local theater. She dreamed of a rich life, based not just on material possessions, but also on the comfort of love. She dreamed of the kind of romance she was denied during her first marriage. When she found love, she jumped at the chance to hold onto it.

The layers of Kamila’s story are complicated, and certainly not made any less so by the fact that her memoir was written by her daughter but told in her own voice after her death. Hanan Al-Shaykh rose to the challenge when she agreed to tell her mother’s story. She used her gift as a storyteller to not only explore her own memories, but to finally grant her mother the recognition she desired all her life. Al-Shaykh used her pen to give her mother a voice, and the result is The Locust and the Bird. We recently asked her a few questions about the book, her writing, and her life.

Your writing deals with subject matter that is controversial throughout much of the Islamic world. Does your work challenge your own personal beliefs?
I depict on Arab societies in my novels, and yes, my subjects are controversial due to my strong feelings towards the complex society I lived in which, alas, is now more stifling and wrenched with sorrow and backwardness.

What was the process for obtaining the information you needed for the book? How much of it came from your mother, and how much came from other family members?
The miracle happened when I first pricked up my ears and opened all my senses when my mother was telling me her story; when I asked her many questions; when I revisited my own hidden memories of her; and when my brothers and sisters gave me all Muhammad’s (her lover, then husband) diaries and his letters to my mother, though she was illiterate.

The book was published in Arabic a few years ago, and it ignited in some members of my family and mother’s friends many forgotten stories and episodes. Of course, I was enchanted with what I heard and included these stories in the English edition.

From your prologue, it’s clear that you were quite reluctant at first to tell your mother’s story. Was there any point while you were working on the book that you had second thoughts about finishing it?
Yes, I had second thoughts about finishing the book when my mother suddenly changed her mind about being very descriptive and frank about her poverty—especially a description of how she used to search in the soil of her village for something to eat. But a wise friend of mine pushed me to write the chapter and read it to my mother; and this is what I did. My mother became so happy, and at the same time so emotional. She cried and said “Go ahead, my daughter, I trust you—write whatever you want.”

Are there any aspects of the story which you improvised? How did you go about writing dialogue that had originally taken place so many years earlier?
Because my mother was totally illiterate, she had sharpened all her senses and had to memorize proverbs, dialogues of films, and people around her…she was so sharp and obsessed in saving every word she heard.

How difficult was it to write a memoir in your mother’s voice compared to writing fiction?
Difficult only emotionally. Otherwise, it was easy to inherit her personality. Whilst writing, I discovered great similarity between her and me. But as a fiction writer, I felt frustrated here and there. I wanted to intervene and change things; to give a bigger impact. Also I couldn’t just use one word or two to show my father as kind and a humanist, which is how I saw and knew him.

Though the memoir is written from your mother’s point of view, you have written a prologue and an epilogue in your own words. Do you see parts of your own memoir in The Locust and the Bird?
In writing my mother’s story, I had discovered my tangled emotions, the pain I must have felt of feeling abandoned when I was only six or seven years old, and my confusion about her deception while she was living two lives—with us and with her lover Muhammad.

What’s your writing process like? What do you do if you get stuck?
I write and write, searching for the narration voice and for what I want to write about, though I always start with an idea. I don’t want to sound conceited but I don’t remember ever getting stuck, except that once or twice I remember calling a friend to ask her what she thought character of mine should do. She always had the answer immediately.

Many of your books—including this one—have been translated from Arabic to English. Do you worry that anything will get lost in translation? Is it hard to trust someone else with your words?
I don’t worry at all when my stories are translated to the English language because I get involved with the translation. I am blessed with the translator Catherine Cobham, who has translated most of my books and plays. Why am I blessed? Because she is like a novelist herself and has a feel for the text. She preferred not to translate The Locust and the Bird because it wasn’t a novel.

Do you think that Islamic voices are underrepresented in the Western world?
Unfortunately yes, they are underrepresented, not because of the numbers of the writers, but because of the stereotypes the West seeks to find among Moslem voices such as Hirsi Ali and Manji. But what about a Moslem like my mother who, without a shred of timidity or discretion, recounted a life story of a Moslem woman who was a flawed woman, wickedly witty although female. Subjugation is alive and well in the book.

I feel as if her life and essence mock Western stereotypes that obscure, much like the actual veil itself, the face of many an Arab woman.

What are you reading right now?
I am reading Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, and Valley of the Assassins by Freya Stark.

What is your six-word memoir?
My six-word memoir would be: When I nearly stroked a peacock.


READ an excerpt The Locust and the Bird

BUY a copy of the book

CHECK OUT Hanan Al-Shaykh’s novels

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21 responses

  1. Barbara Rhame says:

    This interview and description of the book brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful gift for both, even after her death. It is always difficult to imagine the life of another and appreciate the true meaning of that life. Excellent interview.

  2. Kathy Marquis says:

    Very insightful. An interesting look into how Al-Shaykh works at here craft. Also shows the dynamics between mothers and daughters are difficult in any culture. I definitely will read the book now.

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