Author Interview/Sidebar/Photo with Calendar Listing
Life is a sea of change universal, constant and sometimes unnerving. Do we dig in our heels, unmovable and resolute in our determination, or do we embrace the change and see where it leads us today, tomorrow and into the future? In The Sands of Zulaika, the story of an American couple who work and live in the Persian Gulf, author Kathryn Abdul-Baki ponders whether change is more than a dream; could it be the foundation to discovering ourselves, our world and the lives and loves that surround us?
As part of the College of Southern Marylands Connections Literary Series, Abdul-Baki will read from Sands of Zulaika, beginning at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 20, at CSMs La Plata Campus, Center for Business and Industry (BI), Room BI-113.
Abdul-Baki was born in Washington D.C to a Palestinian father and American mother and grew up in Kuwait, Beirut and Jerusalem. She attended American University in Beirut, Lebanon for two years and received a bachelors in journalism from George Washington University and a masters in creative writing from George Mason University.
Prior to writing fiction, Abdul-Baki worked as a journalist and features-writer for an English weekly in Bahrain. Her published works include a collection of short stories, Fields of Fig and Olive: America and Other Stories of the Middle East and three novels, Tower of Dreams, Ghost Songs and Sands of Zulaika. She is the winner of the Mary Roberts Rinehart prize and a previous finalist for the Ariadne Prize. A frequent lecturer on multicultural literature and Arab studies, she has completed her fourth novel, Hotels: A Marriage in Four Seasons, the story of a couple from New York who travel to Spain and the Middle East and their stays at hotels in those countries over the four decades of their marriage.
In preparation for CSMs Connections program, Abdul-Baki discussed Sands of Zulaika, the importance of place, tradition and being open to change.
CSM: How do you feel about being classified as an Arab-American writer?
Abdul-Baki: I don't necessarily think of myself as an Arab-American writer. I was classified as such mainly for marketing purposes since my stories and novels have mainly been set in the Middle East with Arab characters. Since I grew up in the Middle East and have an Arab father, the Arab culture and environment is more familiar and comfortable terrain for me to write about. I am grateful, however, to have been embraced by Arab and Arab-American readers and am happy to share my love of the Middle East with my non-Arab readers.
CSM: Large sections of “Sands of Zulaika” are devoted to describing the history of Abu Samra and its people. Is it hard to find a balance in a book like this between the fiction you set out to write and the non-fiction that is necessary to in order to inform your readers and bring them fully into this world?
Abdul-Baki: It is tricky to create a balance between description of place and the plot and characters. It is important to not go overboard with describing the setting at the expense of the story. Yet since I write in English about the Arab environment, I do find it necessary to give enough information regarding history and setting so that the reader can empathize with the characters and understand why they do what they do, given the particular place and conditions in which they live. In rewrites, I generally go back and minimize extraneous details that may distract the reader from the storyline, but I like to leave in as much of the sense of the place as possible so that the reader feels.. familiar and engaged enough with the setting to be attracted to the story.
CSM: In the book, some of the characters, particularly Gina, are faced with a new and often conflicting sense of place. Could you describe the importance of having a sense of place not only in a book but also to you as an author?
Abdul-Baki: With Gina, I wanted to drop her cold into a foreign environment so that the challenge of adapting to a totally new place would serve as a catalyst to re-evaluate her life and marriage and push her into making the decisions in her life that a familiar setting may not have allowed. When one's safe and known setting is disturbed, it sometimes has a dramatic effect on one's personality and attitude, and I wanted Abu Samra to force Gina to grow and in the process to tackle her issues. I observed how expatriates in the Middle East react to their new environment by either deciding to expand their outlook and explore and learn about their new surroundings, or close in on themselves and recreate their familiar communities with like expatriates, thus never really benefiting from living overseas. I want readers to realize that change can be an opportunity for growth.
CSM: The book is filled with sensory images – bold colors, tastes, smells – is it hard to find a balance in the amount of description you need, especially in a novel where the place and people you are describing are relatively unknown?
Abdul-Baki: I've often been told that the settings of my stories are sometimes characters themselves, to the point of overpowering the human characters. I tend to be fascinated by new places and feel that the way one is exposed to a new environment affects their experience in either a positive or negative way. I want my readers to see the Middle East as I do, see beyond the chaos and poverty and dysfunction and primitiveness of some areas, see the warm and colorful world I grew up in. To do this, I must paint a scene that the reader can enter into with ease.
CSM: There are several lovely scenes in the novel where Eastern traditions are described including a pre-wedding henna ceremony and Muharram, a historic Shia ritual procession that is outlawed in many countries. How did you choose which traditions to include in a book and are there some traditions that you would like to write about but have been unable to describe effectively?
Abdul-Baki: The Henna ceremony and the Muharram ceremony are both somewhat exclusive events closed in general to foreigners, so I wanted to give the feeling not only of what occurs at these events, but the deeper meanings of the events to those who participate. These two events have always intrigued me and I wanted to use them to bring out certain traits in the characters. I was somewhat concerned about writing about Muharram since it is a deeply religious occasion and I did not want to offend readers by using it gratuitously for plot purposes. There are certain things I would not want to witness or write about, such as a public execution. I also find it difficult to write about female circumcision, an abominable rite still carried out in parts of Egypt and Africa. There are, however, Egyptian writers who have described female circumcision and denounced it openly and I applaud and support them for (denouncing) it.
CSM: One of the most tense and energetic themes in the book is how the East is perceived by Gina and her husband, Derek. He is clearly an Orientalist with a strong aversion to Eastern culture and traditions while she seems to elevate the foreign to something higher than even herself. Could you talk a little bit about how these two extremes are still seen today and how one can develop true understanding of another culture without falling victim to extremes?
Abdul-Baki: I see Derek's attitude to Eastern culture more as a general indifference to his surroundings and an innate inability to adapt to Abu Samra's less than ideal business environment. Derek wants to go about business as usual and get his job done without the impediments that Abu Samra's still developing technical infrastructure puts before him. He has no particular desire to overlook these details and venture beyond his work into the world that Gina sees as fascinating, and exotic. Gina is a romantic, and as a visual artist, sees more than meets the eye of the casual observer. She often sees what she wants to see, embellishing colors and detail to suit her art and her mood and emotional needs. Neither Gina or Derek are neutral observers of their surroundings, Gina because of her frustration in her marriage, and Derek in his ambition to move ahead in his career, in which Abu Samra is simply a stepping stone. This creates the tension in the novel that will in turn instigate the change that Gina so desperately seeks in her life. A more neutral observer of Abu Samra might not feel either as resentful of it as Derek, or as enamored of it as Gina.
Most of us have some preconceived image of a place before we go, but I think it's quite possible to visit a foreign country with a neutral eye, if we just try to step back and see it as it is, rather than how we have imagined or would like it to be. Some places have had such an emotional hold on me that it took years for me to revisit them without feeling torn by what I remembered them to be and what I saw before me. I think the key to being neutral is not to invest an unfamiliar country with any particular emotion, but to try and see it as it is. For some people this is easier to do than for others, obviously.
CSM: What is the hardest thing for you as a writer?
Abdul-Baki: The hardest thing for me as a fiction writer is always the first draft. I find working in the abstract difficult. It is hard to create a story line and plot out of nothing. I find creating characters easier. Once the first draft is done, the rewrites are what I love best, even if I have to rewrite the book 50 times.
CSM: What do you enjoy about the revision process?
Abdul-Baki: I enjoy being able to concentrate on getting more deeply into the characters' minds and emotions once the work of framing the initial novel has been done. The playing with metaphors, subtle meanings and parallels between the setting and the inner world of the characters, especially the main character, can only come for me once I no longer have to think about plot structure. It also frees me to build the setting, enrich it with detail and texture and feeling. Playing with language in rewrites, endlessly looking for the right words to convey what I want the reader to see or feel, in short, for me the real writing comes with revision, and it's the part I love the most.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $3, general admission. Tickets are available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Marys County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/.
Excerpt from Sand of Zulaika, Chapter 6
Citrine. It was the color of the mid-morning sun on the sand. Once the car stopped and we got out, I noticed the yellow enveloping us. Citrine. Shreds of pale light settled against the teal of the cars hood, against the silver framing of the windshield. A man was standing in the shade of our garden wall, his head back, swallowing water that poured like a fountain from a large bottle into his open mouth. He titled the bottle back and forth several times, letting the water drench his face and blue-black hair, soaking his shirt and his khaki trousers. We stood, the three of us, outside the wall Abbas, this stranger and I . Kathryn Abdul-Baki, 2006