Hanan Al-Shaykh, the woman often called the Arab World’s greatest female novelist, has been talking about her life, and her latest book, The Locust and the Bird.
The Lebanese writer was in conversation at Bloomsbury Books in London, where she now lives. Much of her work revolves around her adopted city. And it was one book – Only in London – which drew me to her. If anyone asks me what my favourite novel is, I don’t have to think about it. It’s this one.
Hanan says she didn’t have to search far for inspiration when writing Only in London. The city’s Arab Street – Edgware Road – is full of the kind of fantastical tales that made it into print. Every visit she made to the street gave her another chapter, she said.
Only in London is essential reading for Arabs in London, or anyone in the capital with a connection to the region.
But that was 2001. Fast forward to 2009, and she has just finished her mother’s life story. The Locust and the Bird.
Hanan’s mother grew up in a poor family in southern Lebanon, where she was forced into marriage at the age of 14. She gave birth to her first child at 15. Despite the graphic descriptions of poverty and infidelity (her mother cheated on her husband – who she grew to hate), the novel earned a surprisingly warm reception in Lebanon.
Hanan recounted how she put the book together through hours and hours of conversation with her mother. It was a big step for her – the pair had grown apart, and it was the research for this book which finally reconciled them.
But one day, she got a phone call. It was her mother. Don’t write anything about how poor I was, it will ruin our reputation, she pleaded. That was it. Hanan scrapped the book idea. How could she write about her mother while masking the truth.
A friend convinced her to keep writing. When she finished her first chapter, she read it out loud to her illiterate mother. There was silence, and then her mother told her to keep writing. Write whatever you want, she urged her.
Shortly afterwards, her mother died.
It was two years before Hanan could face her manuscript. But she pulled through, and produced what turned out to be a tribute to her mother’s life.
The Locust and the Bird is out now.
Hanan – a journalist as well as a novelist – sees Arab women’s rights as one of her most important principles. Many of her books break taboos and have ended up being banned across the Arab World.
It started early. As a child, she would see how the women of her neighbourhood changed their entire characters when the men were around. They could only be themselves when they were alone. She soon fell victim to the misogyny – at the age of 15, her brother found her chatting with her friends in a cafe, and dragged her home.
She was so enraged that she wrote an article and sent it to the Al-Nahar newspaper. They published it and it caused a storm. But far from ostracising her, the women of her neighbourhood were delighted.
And it was that first published work which set her on her course.
By the time of her third novel, the Story of Zahra, she realised she was a public property. Her cause had become bigger than herself. It was then that she really started to make her name. The book was written in London, just after she fled the start of Lebanon’s civil war. She sees the book as a campaign against backwardness – not just in terms of gender relations, but in terms of the armed conflict ripping apart her homeland.
And so began Hanan’s life in exile. She has lived in London since 1984 with her husband and two children. And continuing the theme started by Only in London, her next work will continue the focus on Arab exile and immigration.
2010 promises more treats from Hanan Al-Shaykh.