On 23 April, the second anniversary of Kuwait writer Saud Alsanousi's winning of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) (also known as the Arabic Booker) for his novel The Bamboo Stalk, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP ) will publish Jonathan Wright's English translation. The novel's first-person narrator José is the son of a Filipina housemaid Josephine and a Kuwaiti journalist and writer Rashid, in whose mother's house she worked. Through this prism Alsanousi explores issues related not only to Kuwait, the Philippines and the predicament of immigrant labour, but more widely to questions of identity and the predicament of the "other".
To mark publication of the English translation, Susannah Tarbush interviewed Saud Alsanousi.
It is now two years since you won IPAF for The Bamboo Stalk. Is it possible to summarise the difference that the prize has made to your life, as a writer or otherwise?
Saud Alsanousi (courtesy BQFP)
When I found out the translation of my novel had been assigned to British translator Jonathan Wright, I knew he would work very hard on it as I had been following his career in translation. We kept in touch via email and phone calls and he surprised me with questions that seemed unrelated to the text, but I soon understood his motive behind them, which is his keenness to establish a balance between the Arabic text and the discernment of the Western reader.
Jonathan doesn’t translate the words literally, stripping them of much of their meaning, instead he delves into the details and asks many questions to understand what is behind each word. So much so that I felt he was my partner in writing the story at times. I gave Jonathan complete freedom in changing some sentences as he saw fit without changing the main ideas. I imagine Jonathan’s efforts doubled so that he was acting as editor for some of the chapters as well as translator.
The English translation means that The Bamboo Stalk will reach a whole new readership. Presumably it means that many of the immigrant communities in Kuwait and elsewhere, and especially the Filipinos, will read it for the first time. Are you pleased about this? Could you say something about any launches that may be planned in addition to the event due to be held in London at Waterstones Piccadilly by BQFP and Banipal magazine on 29th April?
Of course it matters a great deal to me for the book to be widely read. However, setting aside the Kuwaiti-Filipino question, which is the subject of The Bamboo Stalk, I feel it’s much bigger than that. What I am presenting primarily is a question of identity. The problem of migrant workers is not the main idea although it is present in the story. The motivation behind the novel is the notion of accepting “the other” despite all the differences. It’s true that I wrote the novel on a character whose identity is fragmented between Kuwait and the Philippines, but this is a universal concern that touches upon the problem of the Mexican in the US or the Iraqi in Sweden. For this reason I don’t think about the Filipino in Kuwait specifically. The novel has been published in Kuwait, the Gulf and the Arab world, but I don’t have the slightest idea how it will be received by the English reader, although I do hope that it achieves similar resonance. I haven’t yet received invitations to events outside of the Arab world except for a literary festival in Berlin and one in Amsterdam. I believe the English translation will open new doors for me.
The Bamboo Stalk deals with sensitive subject matter, in both Kuwait and the Philippines. It was highly praised, but was there also any criticism in Kuwait or elsewhere over your portrayal of Kuwait or Philippine society?
There hasn’t been any criticism or praise for the novel from the Philippines because it hasn’t yet been published in English. A few Filipino friends of mine who I met during my stay in the Philippines have read the English draft and were more responsive to the Kuwaiti part of the story because they are looking for something new. Conversely, the Kuwaiti or Arabic readers were welcoming of the Filipino part as it described a different life and culture. In Kuwait, people were divided: some disapproved of the religious questions, criticism of the police and the addressing of the Bidoon problem (nonspecific citizenships). Some thought I painted a negative picture of my country, especially after winning IPAF in 2013. However, the first prize the novel won was the National Prize in 2012, which is the most prestigious literary award in Kuwait, and I consider this an implicit recognition of the issues addressed in the story concerning some of the ideas and behaviours in my country.
What I aspire to primarily and have mentioned in many book clubs, is for my novel to influence a positive outcome. I believe The Bamboo Stalk has achieved this in changing the way we view “the other”. We barely know anything about Filipino workers aside from their being employees in restaurants and cafés. It’s for this reason that we don’t empathise with others’ pain; they are like robots to us. However, when the reader encounters in the first half of the story a nation that deals with poverty and one that has a rich culture and magnificent history we know little about, that perception begins to change completely. I’ve heard a number of stories about housewives who have changed the way they treat maids after reading the novel. I feel I am accomplishing a large part of what I’ve dreamt about when a woman told me: “I bought two smartphones, one for the maid and the other for her family in the Philippines so they can contact each other on Skype. Thank you for making me see”. I feel completely content even if I only wrote my novel for this one woman. All the voices that disapproved of the novel at the beginning have disappeared, and those who were affected by the novel continue to support it.
Arabic original of The Bamboo Stalk
The novel is full of characters and interlocking stories and one imagines it would make a good adaptation for TV, film, radio or stage. Has there been discussion of such a possibility?
I received a number of offers for TV and feature film adaptations. However, I am hesitant about commercial projects and I always give the condition of being involved in the project for fear of it getting away from its main purpose. I’ve recently signed an initial contract with an important production company that is keen to produce the work and I stipulated the condition of overseeing the screenplay writing process.
There are female domestic workers from various countries in Kuwait. What led you to choose the Philippines rather than another country?
This is an important question. At the beginning I intended for the maid to be from India, for a number of reasons: Indian workers are in high numbers in Kuwait; it’s actually one of the first countries from which Kuwait imported workers; there is a long history between Kuwait and India in trade that stretches before the oil discovery; and I have always been fascinated by the Indian character, its cultural diversity and rich history. However, the plan changed because if Rashid al-Tarouf had a son with an Indian maid, the son wouldn’t look strikingly different from Kuwaitis. Only the Asian features would have enabled me to portray the idea behind the novel, because José Mendoza’s appearance is part of his struggle; people and the family do not accept him because he looks different. This is illustrated in the passage where José is at the airport in Kuwait and is scolded by a passport officer for not standing in the workers’ queue: “He turned me away when he saw my face, even before he had a chance to see my passport.”
The novel seems to include a plea for religious tolerance and diversity, and a kind of universality. José is spiritually open, and is drawn to Christian, Muslim and Buddhist religious buildings and to meditation in natural surroundings. Some of his Kuwaiti friends - the high-spirited “crazies” whom he first met when they were holidaying in the Philippines - are Shiite, some Sunni, and he notices the different ways they pray alongside each other. Was a message of tolerance something you wanted to get across?
The message is very clear. All believers agree, in one way or another, on a god. All religions, in essence, advocate peace, positive behaviour and refraining from sin. Yet we’ve taken to being distracted from our religion in order to scrutinise others, and gave ourselves the right to determine who is to go to heaven and hell. José, despite his simplicity and young age, understood the essence of religion through his experience when he arrived at a truth he believes in after visiting a church, Buddhist temple and mosque: “In my right ear I heard the call to prayer, in my left ear the ringing of church bells. The smell of incense from the Buddhist temples hit my nostrils.” He referred to his heartbeat and said: “I knew that God was there.” He read about different religions and grew fond of them, yet he almost turned away because of people’s behaviour. Finally arriving at the conclusion that “Religions are bigger than their adherents.” Thus recognising that the basis of religion is one’s relationship with his/her god.
For many readers the novel will be their first ever encounter with fiction set in Kuwait or the Philippines. Do you think literature can tell us more than, say, a sociological study?
I don’t think it’s about which can tell us more, but rather which is more expressive and which can evoke closeness, empathy and enjoyment in the reader. Literature provides these opportunities for readers in the interaction it offers them with characters and events. Specialists can write reports full of numbers and facts, but literature, and only literature, delves deep and gives you a human experience. It touches upon emotion and logic together and makes you think, cry, laugh or even regret. I believe this is something studies cannot achieve regardless of their significance.
While researching the Philippines angle, did you find much useful material via the internet and other sources or was a trip there absolutely essential? And did you penetrate Philippine society in Kuwait?
Yes, I went through a lot of reference in books and searched the internet but felt that everything I wrote was cold and devoid of emotion. My early writing resembled – to a large extent – surveys and reports that I’ve published in newspapers and magazines. So I stopped researching, and because I didn’t have any Filipino friends, I made the important decision of travelling to the Philippines to experience it in real life. This provided me with a great opportunity to discover the country, the people, and a culture that is completely different to mine. I wouldn’t have been able to portray José Mendoza without living in a house that looked like his, walked the roads he walked, attended the funerals and weddings he attended, and grew close to those around him. Since my return to Kuwait, and as soon as I landed in the airport, I’ve seen things in a completely different way. I wasn’t Alsanousi at all. I was José and it was as if I was discovering Kuwait for the first time.
translator Jonathan Wright
It is intriguing to read about Josephine’s meeting with the real life Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail, from whom she learns of Rashid’s role in the resistance, and his capture. Is Ismail Fahd Ismail's time in the Philippines, and his writing a study of the resistance, based in fact - and why did you decide to introduce him into the book?
After the Iraqi invasion, Ismail Fahd Ismail travelled to the Philippines to write a novel about the occupation. He needed to get away temporarily in order to write with clarity. Because he felt an urgency in the topic, he chose geographical distance from Kuwait, and spent around six years in the Philippines so that he could write objectively.
Ismail’s presence in the story lends it an unsettling distance. He is the one who raises the questions in the reader of whether Josephine really did meet Ismail; whether or not the story is real; and whether Rashid is one of the characters featured in Ismail’s biographical writing whilst in the Philippines. This is why I introduced Ismail Fahd Ismail in the story, as well as for other reasons I will keep to myself. I think any novelist tries as much as possible to create characters that the reader genuinely believes to be real. This is what drove a number of readers to actually search for José. The Filipino embassy in Kuwait received many phone calls enquiring about Ibrahim Salam (José’s friend, the novels’ translator into Arabic who works in the embassy in the story), as well as Ismail Fahd Ismail and a number of other realistic characters and events that took place in Kuwait. All of which perplexed the readers and made some believe that what they are reading is a true story. To this day, I refuse to answer the question: is this a true story?
Saud Alsanousi with his prizewinning novel © International Prize for Arabic Fiction
You would have been very young at the time of the 1990/91 Iraqi invasion and war. Do you remember much from those times? Rashid and his friend Ghassan were both in the resistance, and the book is a reminder of a period that is perhaps remembered less – at least, outside Kuwait – than it should be. How are the invasion, occupation and war remembered now, and what was their lasting impact on society?
Yes, I was nine exactly when the invasion began. When my family reads what I write they say “you’ve been saved by your memory!” I have a great amount of visual memories and this is because I grew up in a family house or “the big house” as we call it in Kuwait, with my grandmother, my parents as well as sixteen uncles, aunts and their children. Imagine the number of personalities and stories I’ve encountered since birth. The big house is the main reason why I became a novelist; because of the diversity of characters, the fond memories I have with each person I lived with, and because of my grandmother’s stories and legends. As for the impact of war, it’s something we cannot overcome despite twenty five years having passed, but I think I have tried as much as I could and succeeded to a degree. Perhaps Mendoza, José’s grandfather, was right to an extent when he said “‘War isn’t just the fighting on the battlefield…but also the war that’s fought in the minds of those who take part. The first ends, the second goes on and on.” My next novel Mama Hissa’s Mice explores this idea in more depth.
Your first novel Prisoner of Mirrors won the Laila al-Othman Prize and was excerpted in the Fiction from Kuwait special feature in Banipal issue 47, in translation by Sophia Vasalou. Are there plans to translate the whole novel into English?
Prisoner of Mirrors was my first attempt at a novel. I have no plans for translating it. As with any first attempt, I imagine it has many shortcomings. Not to say that I regret the experience in any way, because it was a real education in helping me overcome writing obstacles that I would experience later on. I often look for the motivation behind any piece of writing, and in the case of Prisoner of Mirrors I wrote it because I wanted to write, which I don’t think is enough of a reason. I wrote The Bamboo Stalk because I felt pained by the image others hold of us and I wanted to raise readers’ awareness. In my last novel, I was motivated by fear of a bleak future that possibly awaits us if we continue being blinded by extreme religious and sectarian outlooks.
In 2011 your short story "The Bonsai and the Old Man" won a competition organized by Al-Arabi magazine and BBC Arabic. Do you continue to write short fiction?
I do hope to write short stories, or novellas, because I am haunted by many stories and characters that stretch over a vast period of time and for this reason I prefer writing novels. I hope to succeed one day in writing a story about a few characters on a specific topic, which is a very difficult task for me.
Please tell us about your recently-published new novel and how it relates to your previous two novels. Are there any plans to translate it?
In my new novel Mama Hissa’s Mice, Hissa is the grandmother in the story, the teller of myths and legends. In all her stories mice are a symbol of strife and ruin. I don’t think I can sum up the story in a few words; it took me two years and nine months to complete it. If I was to describe it generally, I would say it is set in Kuwait and spans over forty years, beginning with the Iranian Revolution, to the first Gulf War (Iraq and Iran), the second Gulf War (Iraq and Kuwait), the third Gulf War (the falling of Baghdad), concluding in a fictional period in the year 2020 following what is referred to as the Arab Spring.
It’s about three boys who are friends and neighbours, and tells of the social changes borne out of political shifts and the wars that take on a religious and sectarian character, even in neighbouring countries. It describes how these changes have a direct impact on our behaviour, our ways of thinking and the nature of our relationships with each other as Sunnis and Shiites. It’s a story of four generations: the empathetic grandmothers’ generation; their sons’ generation which is torn between Arabist slogans and blind sectarian affiliations; and the grandsons’ generation (ours), which is the most volatile and detached from its environment. The latter is a deformed generation, having been raised as Arabists but renounced their Arabism – or rather it renounced them - after the second Gulf War. This is the period during which the West, led by the US, became the saviour and we became more American than the Americans themselves. Finally, the fourth generation (the great grandsons), who live in a fictional time. I haven’t yet received any offer for translating the novel. It was published just a month ago.
You have a remarkable track record of recognition for your writing. When and how did you start writing, and how did you learn the craft? And, as a contributor to newspapers, how does your journalistic writing relate to your fiction; does it contribute to the clear and precise yet expressive and lyrical character of your fiction? Are you part of a Kuwaiti “literary scene”?
At the beginning, I encountered difficulty in being accepted in the literary world of Kuwait because I did not belong to a certain literary or cultural group. I wasn’t a member of the Writers Association or any known or unknown initiative and I never took part in courses or workshops. Reading as well as travelling are what taught me to write as well as my natural inclination; I was very inquisitive from a young age and tended to stop to observe the things other people didn’t. It’s hard to determine how I became a novelist because I’ve written in private from a very young age. I wrote about how I feel towards others without telling them. I thanked, cursed or expressed my feelings towards them and my fear of losing them, especially my grandmother. All my feelings were on paper and I used to read a great deal, which was worrying to my parents at times when I would spend long hours in my room away from people. I then published some works on the internet and newspapers but to my parents writing seemed like a waste of time and they refused to give me an office to use for my books and reading. After it was announced that I had won the Laila al-Othman Prize my father said to my mother: “It’s fine for him to take over the office”. They realised that writing is a life-long project to me rather than a pastime. My journalistic writing does not affect my creative writing because most of my published work is literary. I also avoid publishing anything in the newspaper whilst working on a novel, which helps me balance the two.
How important is reading to you. Who do you read, and who are you reading at the moment?
Reading is everything to me. I can’t imagine myself without a book, to the extent where I take four or five books with me even on three-day trips, for fear of not enjoying one or having to extend my stay and not having enough to read. I can’t imagine anything that could give me the experiences books have alongside travelling. I recently read Kafka on the Shore by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Since finishing it, I never ceased cursing it – cursing it affectionately! – for the pleasant experience it has given me, both while reading and afterwards.
Do you still have a “day job” in addition to your writing career, or are you now a full-time writer? Do you think it can be helpful for a fiction writer to have a “day job” to keep in touch with day-to-day life? – as well as to bring in an income!
If the Arab writer left his/her job to write they would starve to death. I have my permanent job, as writing does not generate enough income in the Arab world due to the low readership compared to other countries, as well as the piracy problem and forged books that are sold in some Arab countries. My job doesn’t create an obstacle for me as it helps me organise my time. Besides, the work atmosphere exposes me to a lot of stories and people from different cultures, which I find my inspiration in.
What are you working on now in terms of writing?
I am working on some notes for the next project; writing down ideas and details of times and places, as well as character profiles. It’s still at a very early stage as I am currently engrossed in Mama Hissa’s Mice.