Khaleeji Art Series

Layla AlAmmar: What it means to be an Arab writer in the Western world

A conversation between the internationally acclaimed author and our managing storyteller, Sharifah Alhinai.

العربية

By Sharifah Alhinai

Kuwaiti-American author Layla AlAmmar. Image: by Dana Zubaid, courtesy of Layla AlAmmar.

This article is part of the Khaleeji Art Series, which spotlights artists and art from the Gulf region.

Layla AlAmmar knew from a young age that she wanted to be a published author. “[It] happened when I was a teenager. I used to walk through bookshops looking at the shelves and figuring out where a book of mine would go – usually beside Rabih Alameddine, which is not a bad place to be!” she recalls. Having determined that goal, the Kuwaiti-American read books about creative writing, joined online critique groups like Scribliophile to workshop her works of fiction with fellow writers and eventually got a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh.  Fast forward to today, the young author is one of the Gulf’s most noteworthy authors, after having published her internationally acclaimed novels The Pact We Made and Silence Is A Sense, in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

Set in Kuwait, the first novel revolves around the main character, Dalia, a young Kuwaiti who is pressured to get married by her traditional family as she approaches her 30th birthday, when all she craves is more independence and a life as an art student in the United States. It follows the struggle that emerges within Dalia from living a life that is significantly different from the one she desires, all while she harbors a long-kept secret.  The second novel, published just last spring, tells the story of an unnamed Syrian refugee who finds herself mute in her new community after an arduous trip from war-torn Syria to the UK. It follows her journey of making sense of her new surroundings and her place within them, as she writes about her experiences for a British news outlet under the moniker, “The Voiceless.” 

I speak with Layla, ​​who is currently pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory, about the inspiration behind her new book, what it means to be an Gulf Arab writer in the “West,” and delve into her hopes for how literature from the region is received amongst foreign readers, and her views on the Gulf literature scene. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Warning: This article contains spoilers.

What inspired you to write your second novel, Silence Is A Sense?

Layla AlAmmar: Silence Is A Sense is the result of a decade of following the events of the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the ensuing refugee crisis, and the feverish rise of nationalism and xenophobia around the world. As with all my writing, the novel becomes a repository for questions that I can’t make sense of, for anxieties and fears that continue to percolate in me. All of it was focalized through the story of this young woman struggling to cope with the myriad traumas she’s experienced in the years preceding the present-day narrative.

Both your novels have an element of escape in them. In the first book, The Pact We Made, the main character (Dalia) escapes Kuwait in the end of it, and in the second one, Silence Is A Sense, the main character flees Syria. Tell us more about this common element, which to me at least, has some feminist undertones. 

Layla AlAmmar: I don’t think escape is an exclusively female recourse, particularly in this age of exponentially increasing refugees and asylum seekers, but I understand how it can be perceived that way in light of familiar stereotypes that plague women in Arab literature.

I’m attracted to the notion of fleeing for the promises of freedom it holds. And not just freedom in the quotidian sense of “Oh, look, here’s another Arab and/or Muslim woman escaping her violent family and oppressive culture.” It’s the freedom of reinvention, the remaking of the self, that interests me. Does fleeing offer a genuine opportunity to become someone else, or to live more authentically, or to become who we might have been? As Arabs, particularly Arab women, we are so shackled by our communal selves. We are utterly beholden to an identity that’s constituted by the collective rather than the individual. We are raised to think of ourselves as extensions of others, as parts of a whole. I am not Layla. I am bint Jasem. I am bint AlAmmar. And if you want more, I can recount them; we can all recite our full names, five or six or more patriarchs back, links in a heavy chain that stretches many generations behind us and is always rattling.

As a result, our actions are rarely individual ones; they reverberate and have an effect on others in our families. That’s something Dalia wrestles with in my first book. The novel deals with unacknowledged trauma and the anxiety and resentment that silence can breed. No one outside of her nuclear family knows what happened to her, and one reason for suppressing it is fear of how the ensuing scandal would impact the marriage prospects of her niece and cousins. It’s a concern that Dalia is not unsympathetic to, even as it contributes monumentally to her suffering.

It’s one thing to be prepared to accept the consequences to one’s self, but how do you reconcile personal freedom in a context where your actions may do material harm to loved ones?

So when my characters flee, they’re not necessarily escaping a society they loathe or a family life that has become intolerable. Instead, what my characters are seeking is a new way to be, an identity that isn’t impinged upon by a collective force that they neither chose nor consented to.

 

Silence Is A Sense is Layla AlAmmar’s most recent novel. Image: Borough Press.

Both novels also have the element of the main character finding her voice. Can you elaborate on your continued interest in that theme?

Layla AlAmmar: The trope of a woman finding her voice is a tired one in literature featuring an Arab and/or Muslim protagonist, but unfortunately it tends to get highlighted more frequently than other things the fiction might be doing. Often, the very fact of “finding her voice” becomes more important than what she ultimately says. The new book is less about speaking out than it is an exploration of the psychological effects of unacknowledged trauma and the harm that our culture of shame and repression engenders.

On the other hand, the protagonist in this book consciously mocks this notion of “finding her voice.” As she has been rendered mute by the traumas she endured — both in Syria as the civil war began and also on her journey through Europe — she “speaks” about her experiences by writing articles for an online magazine under the moniker, The Voiceless. This is a tongue-in-cheek reference to that trope, and one of the things she discovers is that a person is never voiceless — either they silence you or you silence yourself.

“My characters are seeking is a new way to be, an identity that isn’t impinged upon by a collective force that they neither chose nor consented to.”

– Layla AlAmmar

In Silence Is A Sense you write, “People aren’t interested in the truth so much as the narrative.” How true do you think this statement rings personally when it comes to literature about the Gulf, or so-called Middle East?

Layla AlAmmar: Narratives are about resolution and coherence, and when you’re talking about underrepresented or marginalized peoples – such as those of the Gulf or wider region – then narratives also become about representation and the confirmation or repudiation of stereotypes. They become about paradigms and discourses and an assembly line of frameworks that one must pivot towards.

Truth is messier. It lacks the coherence that we, as readers and as people, crave. In many ways, truth is irreconcilable. It’s personal and subjective. What I wanted to do, particularly in my new book, was ask the reader to set aside their learned assumptions about the narratives of refugees or Arabs or Muslims, and receive the truths that the protagonist is attempting to convey.

And in a broader and metafictional sense, I hope that’s how Arab literature can be received — as expressions of multiple, coexisting and contradictory truths rather than teleological narratives.

How do you navigate the terrain of writing about the Gulf and wider Arab region without feeding into Orientalist or stereotypical narratives that some are hungry for, particularly since you write in English?

Layla AlAmmar: Our fiction is weighed down by burdens of representation that fiction, as a genre of writing, has no responsibility towards. If we write about domestic abuse or intrafamily femicide, some readers in the so-called “west” will point at it and say, “See, those cultures are barbaric.” Then, you have those in our own societies who say, “These are internal problems and should not be aired to outsiders who will use them to stoke the flames of their prejudices and anti-Muslim bias.”

Of course, this is not to say that representation in art and literature doesn’t matter. These are important conversations to have, but it’s unreasonable to expect fiction to answer to and for them all. No one would dream of placing such a burden on the work of Hilary Mantel or George Saunders, for example. This is because readers (particularly the white, upper-middle class reader that the publishing industry tends to focus on) have an infinite array of writers to draw from when they construct an “image” of England or when they consider the meaning of American life. 

This is why diversity and inclusion in publishing and film/TV is so important. It goes a long way towards allowing for a multiplicity of experiences to be expressed. This multiplicity is what will dispel the myth of the Single Story — the perennially traumatized Muslim woman, the inherently violent Arab man, etc etc. It’s not something that can be accomplished with any one film or novel. 

At the end of the day, all a novelist can do is write the story that feels organic and authentic to them. You have no responsibility for how the story is received because once you accept that kind of responsibility, you’re playing someone else’s game. 

“I hope that’s how Arab literature can be received — as expressions of multiple, coexisting and contradictory truths rather than teleological narratives.”

– Layla AlAmmar

What has feedback about your books been like? Does it differ based on the nationalities of the readers?

Layla AlAmmar: I wouldn’t say based on nationalities but rather based on the reader’s background and horizon of expectation. It’s no secret that audiences unfamiliar with our region, its histories and cultures, tend to receive our literature as ethnographic documents. In other words, the literature is expected to serve a pedagogical function where it teaches the reader about the region and its peoples. It’s expected to confirm some monolithic (and to a large extent, self-evident) “truth” that the reader already anticipates before they even begin reading.

This attitude is receding somewhat, though it does linger in some quarters. In the US, in particular, I occasionally find that a novel is oriented as an “East-West” encounter, even if the so-called “encounter” in the book is minor and inconsequential to the protagonist. There’s a persistence in framing these narratives in that dichotomous, Orientalist fashion.

This rarely comes up in conversations I have with people from the region or who have intimate knowledge of these contexts. Here the focus is more on the individual personhood of the protagonist, for example, probing her psyche and identity and framing these issues within the wider psychosocial dynamics of our communities. There’s more nuance in discussions about religion, culture, sex and politics as well as a richer understanding of the connections behind our varied histories. The “west” is hardly ever mentioned in these conversations, even for a novel like my secondwhich concerns a refugee’s experience in England.

What does it mean to be a Khaleeji/Arab writer writing in the “Western” world? What have your experiences been like? Have you had to deal with preconceptions/ misconceptions/ certain expectations?

Layla AlAmmar: I don’t see myself that way. I never considered myself an “Arab” writer until pre-publication marketing began for my first novel. It was only at that point that I was compelled to begin thinking of myself in that way, with all the representational burdens that come along with that. My experiences have been positive though, and I do sense (from some outlets) a genuine desire to move beyond tired discourses.

However, I will say that I think it’s important for a writer to understand the conversation they’re stepping into. You need to understand that your fiction is not really an individual utterance; on the contrary, it forms part of a large and well-established site of Arab literature. Edward Said once said that, “All novels belong to a family, and any reader of novels is a reader of this complex family to which they all belong.” So it is for the writer as well. We have a responsibility to consider how our work is in dialogue with that canon, what it contributes to the conversation happening in and around this literature. 

Your first book was about a main character that is Kuwaiti, and this one is about a Syrian main character . Both are Arab, of course. Do you believe that you have an obligation, as an internationally selling Arab author, to write about the Arab world? Do you think other authors do towards their respective regions too? Why or why not?

Layla AlAmmar: This is a complicated question. I wouldn’t say I feel obligated to write about the Arab world, although I understand how others feel quite strongly that they have a duty to write about their homelands and the crises they have endured (and continue to endure).

There is also the unavoidable truth that publishers are rarely interested in a writer from a marginalized background who doesn’t write about that background. They expect you to address these issues and contexts. So if you don’t, you do risk being ignored — no matter how talented you may be.

I like to think authors ultimately write about the things that concern them, the fears and anxieties that burrow into their chests and refuse to let them go. And I have trouble conceiving of an Arab writer who isn’t concerned about the various crises (political, social, economic, etc) that we’re living through. So it only makes sense that these preoccupations would infuse the writing in some way or another. Fiction, in particular, can be an optimal site for working through questions and airing grievances. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that writing exorcises these fears — not for me anyway — but it provides a space for wrestling with them, hopefully in productive ways. 

The Pact We Made is Layla AlAmmar’s first novel. Image: Borough Press.

How did your experience writing this novel differ from writing your first one?

Layla AlAmmar: The process itself wasn’t too different. I don’t outline my novels, so where the story ends up is as much a surprise to me as it (hopefully) is for the reader. I get gripped by a character, by their voice and perspective, and I write them as they come to me. I try not to impose myself on the process or dictate where the story should go based on some preconceived idea or message or, worse still, agenda. I like it to be organic and unforced.

The first draft usually takes between 4-7 months or so. The editing process is longer and more difficult. For The Pact We Made, I spent around four years editing the novel. The editing process was shorter with Silense Is A Sense because the book was on a publishing schedule whereas my first novel was finished two years or so before I signed with my publishers. 

What are your hopes for the Gulf literature scene? What would you like to see more of, or less of?

Layla AlAmmar: I would hope for more institutional support, from schools, universities and foundations. I’d love to see the arts taken as a serious and viable career option, with more creative writing workshops and courses and degrees on offer. I think we need more competitions and bookshops and festivals to really bolster and support the literary scene. I hope to see Anglophone literature taken as seriously as Arabic-language literature is; writing in English tends to be marginalized and not seen as “really Arab” — whatever that means.

I’d also love to see writers, particularly those writing in English, take their craft seriously and have enough faith in themselves to pursue traditional publishing instead of turning to self-publishing just because it’s quick and easy. 

Why do you think we don’t see many writers from the Gulf region who write in English become internationally acclaimed? What are some of the factors at play?

Layla AlAmmar: For Anglophone writing, I do see a lot of writers pursuing self-publishing rather than going the traditional route. And the fact of the matter is that self-publishing is not going to lead to international recognition simply because there’s no mechanism for it to do so. Unless you already have a large platform (on social media, for example), it’s impossible for an author to access the kinds of platforms needed to tap international markets. It’s not just a matter of getting your book on Amazon or in bookstores: you need access to well-known authors who would be willing to provide a blurb for your book; you need magazine and newspaper editors who will review the book or put it on must-read lists; you need festival programmers who might invite you to appear on a panel to speak about your book. And in order to gain this access, the author needs a publishing company behind them — a sales & marketing team, publicists, editors, etc. 

It’s hard to break into traditional publishing, for sure. More often than not you need a literary agent first, and it can take years to find one. I queried agents for two years before signing with mine. Then, it can take months or years for the agent to sell your book to a publisher. I feel like many writers in the Gulf don’t have the patience for this process and the inevitable rejections it entails. Traditional publishing also means opening yourself up to criticism and feedback on your writing; you will have to edit your book in conjunction with your agent and editor(s) before it’s published. Unfortunately, we don’t have a strong editing culture here, and often, self-published books read like first drafts. Writers need to be able to divorce their ego from the work and humble themselves in order to improve it. 

What would you advise a rising Gulf writer who would like to become an internationally selling author such as yourself?

Layla AlAmmar: In addition to the perseverance needed to get an agent and publishing deal, it’s about investing in your craft and continuously working on it. I’ve been a heavy reader (of fiction and non-fiction) for as long as I can remember, and I do believe that in many ways literature is a great writing teacher. However, that isn’t always enough. I read books on the craft of writing, about plot and character development and narrative devices. I joined online critique groups to workshop my fiction, and I eventually went back to school for a Master’s in Creative Writing. 

I realize going to graduate school for a degree in writing is not feasible for everyone nor is it necessary in order to get a publishing deal. However, there are other options, such as summer writing programs or short writing courses or retreats. In the age of Covid, there are many online options as well. If a writer is serious about becoming a published author, I would strongly advise them to seek out such courses. 

What are some of your favorite books written by Gulf authors?

Layla AlAmmar: Mai Alnakib’s short story collection The Hidden Light of Objects is a lovely piece of fiction. It invokes a sense of nostalgia for a Kuwait that has been lost and which many of us yearn for. It also has an interesting form, with the short stories standing alone but woven through with a series of linked vignettes. 

For those who read in Arabic, Laila AlOthman’s Wasmiya takhruj min al-bahar is a beautiful story of doomed love, set against the backdrop of Kuwait when oil was discovered and the country was on the cusp of modernity. It’s also full of nostalgia, harkening back to simpler and more innocent times. I’m currently looking for a publisher to publish my translation of the novel as I believe it deserves a wider readership outside the region. 

What are your future plans? If you’re planning to work on a third novel, what would you want it to be about? 

Layla AlAmmar: My current focus is my PhD. I’m pursuing a doctorate in the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory, so all my writing energy is focused on my thesis at the moment. Of course, I hope to put out more novels, but as I said, I don’t plan them, so I have no clue what a third book might be about. I just have to trust that once I get gripped by a voice, the story will follow.


Sharifah Alhinai is co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.