LiteratureWomen & Gender

My Journey in the World of Stories

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Who chose the other?

“She loves chattering and weaving strange tales.” This sentence jumped out at me as I was cleaning my room in our house in Sana’a. It was on my grade 1 school certificate. Memories flitted across my mind of those wonderful childhood days when I would talk to my friend the moon, peeping through the wooden window before sleep overcame me. I remember how the cold breezes of Sana’a would caress my face as I slept next to my mother when a raging fever had made me mumble incoherently.

Had I really been talking to the moon? I watched intently as the moon began to take on different shapes as I unfolded my childish fears. The moon simply smiled in its reassuring sobriety, giving me a comforting pat. I tell the moon about the teacher who had hit me with a long ruler because I wasn’t as quiet as Lubna, then I talk about my excitement about going to school tomorrow despite this fear because my friend’s father had brought a new toy when he returned from his travels. Then I talk bitterly about the boy who had cleaned my mother’s car, all the time eying the ice-cream I had been waiting for, for over a week. I had succumbed to the better side of my nature and given it to him. I kept on telling it my stories, hoping that it would like me more. The moon kept smiling as I related all of that. I woke up the next day with the reality of the fever that had made me hallucinate, common for most children of my age. The moon had never spoken to me.

I remember the stories my siblings used to read at my age, and the books my parents would bring after every trip to the book exhibition. I would devour each book, again and again, the excitement never waning despite the repetition. My father used to read me stories from Kalila wa Dimna,[1] and my favourite was the story of the crow and the snake as I was impressed by the strength of the crow. I also remember incredible stories that were so far-fetched that we passed them on to each other at school. I enjoyed the horror stories despite them making me afraid of sleeping in the dark. I would listen simply because it was beyond our childish bubbles that we imagined would never burst.

After my episodes with the moon, I found myself full of contradictory emotions: laughing and crying at the same time, and hankering after a mysterious thing I had yet to know. In between complex emotions and lengthy silences, I would feel immense sadness in my young heart. The sadness grew bigger and bigger as I went through this journey, and I remembered the boy who had cleaned my mother’s car, or when I read in a Jordanian newspaper about a millionaire who had lost all he had possessed, and saw him the same day sitting in a public park while illness ate up his bereaved body. Again, the lump in my throat would return as my parents listened to the news about the bombardment of Iraq. I had stared fearfully at the screen wondering how could Baghdad sleep amidst the cacophony of bombs and missiles?

That kind of all-pervading sadness would make me cry without understanding why I did so at times, and those tears away from people’s eyes used to relieve me. One day, I decided to write about that boy who had cleaned the car, asking myself what he had been thinking that day? Why did he clean cars, didn’t he go to school like me? I asked all these naïve questions which I only had to answer with my imagination. I would sit and write with candlelight as I imitated great writers who did that out of necessity, and whom I had begun to read when I was 12 years old. The magic of words was like no other; and as I finished the story, I felt a great sense of fulfilment. As I put it away in my drawer, I felt the sadness returning, but this time, my tears were that of relief. From then on, words became my refuge, drawing lines between what should be said and not be said, between restraining feelings and putting them on paper. I wrote my first story when I was five years old, which made my mother encourage me to write; although I had felt at the time that her enthusiasm was unwarranted. It was a story about a dog and a snail, and I had no idea of the strange connection between the two different creatures. Many years later, my mother was relating the story, which she kept reminding me of, to her friend. I was surprised when her friend said that the story had a deep moral behind it.

Artwork by Shatha al-Towai

I became so enchanted by words, travelling through prose, poetry and fiction. I experimented with all forms throughout my teenage years, then I challenged myself and concentrated on poetry for a whole year. Maybe it was my fascination with Arabic poetry, which did not resemble poetry in any other language in its richness. I managed to grasp Arabic poetry and its complicated metres,[2] and understood the secrets of free verse. In spite of that, I felt I did not belong to the world of poetry in terms of writing, but to that of stories. I love telling stories and do not know how to stop once I start. What helped make my decision was a comment from a writer, with whom I had shared my poetry in one of the literary forums, who said: “Even in your poetry you are telling a story. I think you are a storyteller by nature.” At first, I did not believe him, but in my heart I knew what he said was very true as I love stories. From then on, I entered the world of short stories which I felt satisfied my urge for revealing my thoughts and emotions.

Implications of entering the world of stories

Since I started my real journey with words, I have not cared about the different epithets with which critics might address my writing. It is enough that I am a human being and I write from what transpires in my soul as a result of my observations of daily life and experiences.

I write for people who I feel would not divulge their feelings, which is akin to theft; theft of events that you lived with in your imagination and emotions from people who did not share their stories with you.

I prefer to think of myself as someone who writes about humanity, but this of course has been met with a lot of criticism for not classifying my writing under the heading ‘feminist literature’. I asked myself whether the interest in women’s writing is due to talent, or simply the fact that a woman is writing. I did not like the idea of being placed in a certain frame devised for me simply because I am a woman, or being unable to write anything that takes my fancy without being associated with womanhood.

The thought of associating every word I write with that of women’s literature or for that matter writing under a particular literary genre stifles my imagination. I write simply because I need to write: maybe today I might write on an issue related to women; maybe tomorrow, related to men; and maybe the day after on something that is different altogether, irrespective of gender.

This obsession with classifying women writers’ literature is unjustified to my mind for everything in life is worth relating. I am no more than a lens through which I observe life and tell the story, perhaps of issues that have been deliberately or inadvertently neglected. I do not deny that in my second collection of stories I wrote on issues that women faced, from my own perspective; but I wrote about a human being who is suffering, without thinking of all these details. For if a woman writes about her issues, why do we limit her to a certain domain whilst she is writing about human issues with all their problems? Are we not humans who suffer in different ways? Why do we always address women’s writing in a different way, simply because the author is a woman, or dismiss women’s writings altogether, not giving it the same critical eye that is accorded to men?

Identity crisis in storytelling

Reading ignites in us the urge to write. Even if we may not possess the ability to transfer thoughts into words on a page, the wish that one becomes a writer seems an attractive prospect nonetheless. Literary people and poets are always idealised by people, and some may eventually succeed in releasing that urge to write; yet others may remain unable to express themselves through writing. However, everyone feels this urge for self-expression upon reading a piece that touches them in some way or the other. I used to love reading Arabic literature which formed my beginnings in this world of words. Later, I became absorbed in Russian and English literature to some certain extent. The novels by foreign writers opened up my mind to reading without any preconceptions, and taught me the lesson that people all over the world may come in different shapes and shades, but in the end there are universal traits that are shared by all humanity. Dostoevsky, for example, in many of his writings, fascinated me in the way he dissected the dynamics of human nature and motivation behind people’s actions. Despite the fact that he was extravagant in describing the psychological complexities of humans, it was this style that appealed to me, contrary to many who do not think so. I also liked novels by the American writer John Steinbeck, despite his bleak depiction of human suffering and sorrow. I remember my father bringing me one of Steinbeck’s novels, The Pearl; and despite its tragic story, it made me understand more about human beings and what motivates them to do what they do.

Maybe because our generation has faced many tragic events in the Arab region, I often turned to other cultures, different from mine, for inspiration, and was attracted to different countries as I felt empathy for their tribulations too. I had the ability to transport myself to any land with complete neutrality, and this phenomenon raised many questions from my Arab writer friends: “Why are your stories devoid of place and time, and do not portray the Yemeni environment solely?”

I was no doubt very troubled by this, as the experiences of Yemenis are little known amongst Arab readers. Yemen seems far from the Arab map despite the fact that it is one of the most ancient civilisations. Yemen in reality is little known to the Arab mind, except for traditional sayings about Yemen that people repeat without prerequisite knowledge about their context. As far as the west is concerned, Yemen appears in orientalist writings as an exotic fairy tale. In my search of Yemeni fiction, it appears rarely in comparison to other Arab countries. Despite Yemen having its share of great poets, like al-Baraduni and others for example, other literary genres like novels are almost non-existent and without clear styles. In my search, I found a few names like The Hostage by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj and Mohamed Abdulwali, but I found great difficulty in obtaining copies of his books before the advent of e-books. Even though his stories saddened me since he talks about the exodus of Yemenis since time memorial, I did not find other old Yemeni novels that I could present to my Arab friends. The fact that others spoke about us more than we do ourselves troubled me a lot; as did their saying things about us we may not agree with – that is if they talk about Yemen at all.

I found myself caught in the midst of the storms that have raged in the Arab region in general and particularly in Yemen; turning to writing our stories, trying to find connecting threads in our scattered presence in an attempt to make sense of the chaos and ease our pain. This time, the lump of sadness in my heart no longer disappeared, even after writing.

Artwork by Shatha al-Towai

I wrote about everything I could not change in our new reality, so much so that I was accused of pessimism. But as the English saying goes, ‘life is stranger than fiction’; and so if I could not give solutions to problems on paper, it is enough that I share the issues with readers.

The catastrophe of publication

Publication in the Arab world is another story, for even if publication is daunting globally, in the Arab world it acquires more critical dimensions. For example, no publisher is willing to gamble on publishing an unknown writer, for publication is determined by fame and sales. So if a budding writer wishes to publish, there are two clear options open to them, and there may also be a third. Either they pay for self-publication (which is rather expensive and difficult for most); or they win a writing contest (this is even more difficult because they may not be part of publishers’ inner circles); or the third option is to find a publishing house that believes in the message of the writing, and may agree to publish their work, but this is very rare. I was lucky to publish my first book of short stories, Painting to the Sky, with Al-Abbadi Publishing House in Yemen, after years of struggling to find a publisher. My second book remained imprisoned in my laptop for five years, during which I approached every publisher I could think of. Most publishers ignored me, and many others rejected me outright, until at last Fadaat for Publishing in Jordan agreed to publish my book Mi’ad. I still remember my disillusionment with the world of publication after the debut of my first book, for the short story, like poetry, has not received the attention it deserves in the Arab world. No one would invest their money and time in buying a book of short stories, as much as they would for novels. People tend to forget that the short story is a genre that requires the condensation of events and economic use of words, unlike a novel with its world of extended events. People imagine that the short story is suitable for people who aspire to become novelists, but I see short story writing as a genre that stands on its own, with its own characteristics and techniques. I still hold on to short story writing, in spite of the fact that on my present literary journey, I would like to write a novel which I have started. But still the short story is my most successful medium for portraying the different little worlds that I deduce around me time and time again. My first experience in publication has taught me that publishing is only a first step and not the end of the journey. Publishing in reality means that you remove your writer’s cloak and put on a different cloak, which becomes a straitjacket: that of marketing.

I cannot reconcile myself to this aspect of post publication, although it is deemed necessary by publishers. I can understand the reason behind this unpleasant endeavour, but I cannot reconcile myself to the idea of selling what I write. I write because I do not remember any time in my life that I did not write in any way or style I chose. Even if I am aware of the fact that writing will not necessarily reach its audience without marketing and gaining fame through networks of personal relations within the literary scene , I still believe that genuine words will find their way to people who will appreciate them without all these hurdles.

I do not deny that even after my second experience in publication, I am still reluctant to go through this experience again, and I limit myself to publishing my writings on a few websites here and there. I felt satisfaction in the simplicity of doing so without having to adhere to all these publication rules, and so many formalities. I find the process of writing to be cathartic, and I do not want running after publishers and considerations of marketing to interfere with this task. I have lived in this intense world of words since childhood, and this is enough for me in order to retain my place in a world that weaves different stories; as what is the human experience of life but a story?

[1] Kalila wa Dimna is a collection of tales and animal fables that was written during the Abbasid era by Ibn al-Muqaffa.

[2] Metres and laws that were laid down by al-Khalil ibn Aḥmad al-Farahidi.


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Kawthar Abdulwahid Alshureify

A Yemeni writer who graduated with a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Electronics and Communications Engineering (specializing in Management of Technology) from the American University in Cairo. She currently works in the field of research and technical content creation. She has two published short story collections entitled Painting to the Sky (2009, Alabbadi Publishing House, Sana’a, Yemen) and Mi’ad (2018, Fadaat for Publishing, Amman, Jordan).

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