BEIRUT: Hanan al-Shaykh detests epithets and prejudice. Labels like “Muslim,” “Arab,” “Lebanese-born” and “feminist” are a source of annoyance to the acclaimed novelist, who perceives them to be a form of concealed discrimination.
“In the West they need to label you to understand what you do,” Shaykh told The Daily Star. “I tell [Westerners] that all those tags have become a real burden to me. I also tell them not to pigeonhole everybody. This is racism.”
Shaykh, who has lived in London for the past three decades and whose works have been translated to several languages including English, French and German, argued that Western critics ought to focus on her writing rather than on her background or persona.
“I always tell them to look at me as a writer,” Shaykh said, “to focus on my style of writing, my themes, my writing techniques.”
The novelist is currently in Beirut for the signing of the French translation of her novel “The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story,” whose English translation was released in 2009, at Beirut’s Francophone book fair.
Shaykh explained that in this book in particular, she meant to eliminate some of the misconceptions the Western world might have about Arab or Muslim women.
“This is the story of a woman who assumed her choices in life and defied family, society and values by leaving her husband to marry her lover in the 1950s,” said the writer, who veered back and forth from English to Arabic every time the conversation took a heated turn.
“It’s not very accurate that all Arab and Muslim women are oppressed and silenced; my mother and other women led battles from early on.”
Shaykh admits, however, that listening to the story of Kamila, her mother, and the writing process afterward were both “painful” experiences as she was confronted with her grief and untold secrets from the past.
The novelist said the book made her aware of how much she resembled her mother and all the traits she inherited from her.
Shaykh confided that while her feeling of being an abandoned child did not disappear completely, if she were in the same situation Kamila found herself in some 50 years ago, she would have made a similar decision.
“I don’t want to claim I was cured or liberated after I wrote the book,” she added. “Let’s say I understood my mother and myself more.”
Shaykh also refuses to categorize such novels as “The Locust and the Bird” and her celebrated “The Story of Zahra” (1994) as belonging to “Shiite” or “South Lebanon” literature.
“Tackling the conditions of Shiite or southern women was never my purpose,” she said. “It just happens that this is my background.” Zahra’s attempts to escape the brutality of her own family, she added, and those of the war was not unique to Shiite girls.
Shaykh highlighted that Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War was a turning point and a major inspiration for her writing. “After all, the war is my raison d’etre,” she said, “Why am I living in London? Because I [wanted] to escape war in my country.
“Instead of thinking, ‘What am I going to wear today,’ ‘Is it going to rain,’ or ‘Is it not going to rain,’ you start asking yourself questions like ‘Am I going to live or am I going to die,’ ‘Am I going to drop dead this second,’ or ‘am I going to celebrate life?’” Shaykh added.
“All these questions made me write ‘The Story of Zahra.”
Even now, nearly 22 years after the war ended, Shaykh says she cannot recognize her Beirut, and allueds that the Civil War in Lebanon is ongoing but has taken other forms. She said that she chose to express Civil War mania and talk about her departure to London in “Beirut Blues” (1992).
“It’s not my Beirut anymore,” Shaykh said. “It has been divided up and I don’t think I belong to any side.”
A Lebanese writer who has never written any of her novels in Beirut, Shaykh believes place plays a pivotal role in the shape of her novels and dictates many of the book’s characteristics.
“I think place plays a major role my writing because it dictates the characters as people differ from one place to the other,” she said. “Like in London, for example, it’s a cold society [while] in a way the East is warmer.”
Shaykh attributes her talent in shaping attractive and genuine characters to her abilities as an observer. “I was a nosy child … you cannot be a writer if you are not aware of the things and people around you.”
Shaykh said two of the characters in her novel “Only in London” (2001) – the Moroccan prostitute Amira and the Lebanese drag queen Samir – are real people living in London. “I have never met Amira,” she continued, “but we have mutual acquaintances and Samir has become a good friend and wants me to write his story at some point.”
The author said that the writing process for her has evolved and matured over the years.
“When I first started I was more interested with words and sentences and big ideas,” she said. “But it’s the people and the places that have grown to be more important to me.”
Shaykh said that the tonal shift in her work from sinister moods – such as those that resonate throughout “The Story of Zahra” – to the lighter more sarcastic tone of “Only in Lebanon,” came about as a result of her evolution as a writer. She said that Western culture taught her sarcasm and that fun can be poked at even the most dramatic situations.
“In our culture you can never mix tragedy with humor,” said Shaykh, “It’s either this or that. As of recently I feel that I am placing less restrictions against using humor in my books.”
Shaykh attributes her sensuality and sarcasm to her mom. “She’s very funny,” she said. “Whenever somebody tells me my writings make them laugh she immediately comes to my mind.”
Shaykh said she has been enjoying her experiments writing for the theater.
After her dark comedies “Dark Afternoon Tea” (1995) and “Paper Husband” (1997), Shaykh teamed up with director Tim Supple for an adaptation of “One Thousand and One Nights,” which is set to tour this winter with stops in cities such as Sydney and Hong Kong.
Shaykh’s passion for writing novels has not taken a back seat to the stage. At present, she has several writing projects in development at once.
“I am working on short stories and a novel,” Shaykh said, “All I can say now is that [the novel] is based in the south of France.”