Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Q&As with Rana Haddad author of 'The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor'

Q&As with Syrian-British writer Rana Haddad, whose debut novel The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor was recently published by Hoopoe, an  imprint of the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press

How far is your novel autobiographical, for example in terms of Dunya's mixed Syrian-English parentage?
The plot is very much a fiction but the settings and impressions are all mine. This is the Syria I lived in as a child and teenager and later visited over the years. Dunya is very much a fictional creation but I share my 'mongrel' status with her and perhaps a little of her stubbornness. My mother is half Dutch and half Armenian and my father is Syrian. He is very different from Joseph Noor, except for his pride in Syria and his blue eyes.

At what point did you leave Syria, and where did you go? 
I left Syria at fifteen and a half. I lived mostly in London but also in Paris and Madrid and a short while in Beirut. I am now living between England and Crete.

You are a journalist of long standing, working in print and broadcast media. You  have also had a volume of poetry published (The Boy Moon Lost Love Poems Found in an Envelope - 2008). How long have you been writing fiction? 
I tried to write fiction in my twenties but it was impossible for me then, it always turned out too poetic. I needed to learn to become more practical and journalism and especially working in television I think helped me with that, especially  the structure aspect of fiction over such a long canvass.

I had the title, idea and general plot outline for this novel in the early 2000 but from first draft to final draft there were major stops and starts due to a number of reasons including health and moving countries and work. But during that time I also developed quite a lot of the plot and even the text for my second novel and third.

Photography and Dunya’s passion for it is a key dimension of the novel. Did you  have a previous special interest and practice in photography?
 I have never practiced photography myself and whenever I tried I failed because my mind does not work that way - I struggle with the technical element of it. But I had a deep and important friendship with a photographer which made me even more interested in it. Recently my mother told me, after reading the book, that I was always interested in photography as a child, though strangely enough I don't remember that at all. And I never had a camera like Dunya had, I was always interested in writing and wrote poems in Arabic and tried to make them rhyme.

Could you say something about your ongoing work in theatre and drama?
I helped during a Royal Shakespeare Company workshop of a play written by a long standing friend of mine, and this made me realise that Theatre comes naturally to me and is something I would like to pursue, but I feel that I want to pursue it with a strong element of music. Currently I am developing a small performance with a friend who is a Syrian singer - where we will mix scenes from Dunya with songs which she will sing live. We will try to develop this into a more extended performance and work possibly with actors and other musicians. I have also done quite extensive research for three BBC dramas. But they were factual dramas and even though it was a very interesting and educational experience for me, I know I am more interested in poetic and romantic ways of making things, not the hard factual approach.

How did your connection with Crete come about? 
I'm exploring living part-time in Crete, which is the most south Eastern part of Europe and  very near Syria. I can't imagine myself being able to spend all my life entirely in England as I miss Syria too much, and currently I feel Crete is a wonderful compromise and counter-point, and I am learning a lot about Syria's Byzantine and pre Islamic and even pre Christian roots from there. Crete and the Levant have a deep and important link, in myth and culture.

The novel has plenty of poetry in it, including song lyrics …. is this poetry your own, traditional, a mixture of the two?
All the poems and songs in Dunya are written by me, except for "Reader of the Coffee Cup" (of course!) The first song Suha sings which includes the words, Oh Night on Eyes, (Ya leili ya Ein), that expression is of course taken from popular mawals, but the rest is pure fiction.

Are there plans to translate the novel into Arabic and perhaps other languages?
No idea so far, I heard of talks to translate the novel into German and Dutch but so far nothing concrete. I would love it to be translated into Arabic of course, but also Spanish and French as I think it would particularly work in those languages.

Could you say something  about your next novel? Your LinkedIn entry mentions that it will be set in Indonesia in the 30s and 40s, and will also take in the Armenian diaspora and Persia.
My second novel which I am working on now is set in London and it will continue on from some of the major themes I explored in Dunya, but in a very different setting and the characters will be in their 30s. My third novel will be set in Indonesia, but I have already started research for it, as it will take me years to understand Indonesia enough before I can write anything that makes any sense about it. My maternal grandmother and mother and aunts were born and grew up in Indonesia actually. She was the child of the Armenian diaspora from Isfahan who moved to Java island around 1917, and my grandfather was Dutch who came there after the second world war. I want to take that time period and setting but then improvise, as I like to do, and as I did in Dunya.

Susannah Tarbush, London