Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer… what got you started and drove you to keep at it?
I was born in Syria to a mother from New York and a Damascene father. My parents met in a reading room at NYU in the 1950s. They fell in love instantly, were married within a few months, and when my father finished his PhD, together they boarded a boat and sailed across the Atlantic heading for Damascus. I remember hearing this story over and over as a child. With each retelling, it seemed to me more interesting details would be remembered and added. How fate had it, for example, that my father had seen my mother only a few days after watching Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. In his mind, my mother resembled Ava Gardner and, in fact, the first thing he said to her, in his heavily accented English, was “You are Ava, from Pandora.”
I remember lying in my bed trying to envision how it all took place. The scene I imagined could have been plucked right out of one of those classic movies Syrian TV would infrequently air. It was all black and white, just like the pictures my parents had from that time, just like the fuzzy images that I would watch on screen.
In a sense, I grew up with stories. This and countless others. Stories of my Damascene grandfather, Jawdat Effendi Imadyan, impoverished aristocrat from a long lineage of religious scholars amongst whom were several Grand Muftis of Damascus. My aunts would share tales of this upright, educated, stubborn, and intransigent grandfather who loved his strawberry-haired wife to the point of becoming intolerable whenever she was not around. On such occasions, my aunts would set out searching the houses of neighbours and friends for their mother and plead with her to cut her visits short to come back and calm her husband,
The story of my grandparents’ marriage was equally captivating. My grandmother’s father, Adib Agha Hawasli, owned a coffee house just outside the walls of the Old City. My aunts would recount the tale to me as I sat, riveted, on the floor by their feet while they shelled broad beans and sipped sweet, dark tea. This coffee house was no ordinary establishment, having become infamous for the fact that one of its dancing girls had been bitten by a performing lion on the premises. Given his prominent family status, it would have been frowned upon for my grandfather to be seen in such a place. But he had heard much about Adib Agha’s daughter, and he simply could not resist the growing desire to ask for her hand.
Initially, writing was how I processed my past, how I made sense of the stories. But as I wrote, I quickly realised that writing is less about preservation and more about reimagining. Soon, I began to reimagine not just the past, but the present and the future. Give me a cup of sweet tea and I, like my aunts in our house in Damascus, can share stories for hours.
What is your creative process? What inspires a story, from where do your characters stem, how do you conceive of a book from start to finish?
Though this may sound somewhat clichéd, I often feel that I am no more than a medium for a story that insists on being written through me. My best stories, the stories I end up completing, are those that suddenly arrive. At first, they are very condensed. But as I begin typing, they unfold and expand. It is almost as though I am translating an intangible thought into a scene, into words. What I find most interesting is that I rarely know how a story will end until I complete it.
As a writer, what do you like to read in your down time? Who are the writing greats who inspired you?
There was a time when I read voraciously. My tastes were eclectic – Colin Wilson, Audre Lorde, Alberto Moravia, Anais Nin, Alessandro Baricco, Ibn Arabi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Virginia Woolf, the words and lyrics of Bob Dylan. Fact and fiction were equally as appealing to me. I once read in the autobiography of Malcolm X that he had read the entire dictionary from cover to cover. Though I never read it from cover to cover, one of my most prized possessions was a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I would spend hours perusing, trying to replicate something of his experience.
Since I have become a committed full-time writer, I must confess, I now find it very difficult to read. Perhaps because, in the delicate stage of writing, the smallest things, a foreign voice, can play with the process and undermine the intricate task of translating words onto a page.
Your narratives are based on your Middle-Eastern roots. But there isn’t that much creative fiction in English emerging from the region. What are your thoughts on this?
While for a long time, the literary world was lacking in representative narratives from across the globe, there are now many incredible voices emerging from the Middle-East. Women and men who have translated their vastly diverse experiences of lives in the region or as Middle-Easterners living abroad, either in English itself or in translation. Though, I would agree, there are still not enough.
When I say that Her Hand Moves has been deeply influenced by my Syrian roots, it is true. The experience of refugees is a thread which runs through each of the stories within it. But the books I have written since diverge in their influences and reflect not just the Middle-Eastern strand of my identity, but the complexity of who I am and how I experience the world more broadly. I suspect there are many writers who are also doing the same.
Can you tell us a little about your forthcoming book, set to launch this month?
The Celeste Experiment is essentially an allegory. One that captures the dynamics of death, grief, anger, faith, and revelation. Though I feel alienated by the way in which most religious people articulate their faith, I also find it equally difficult to relate to the indifference expressed by those who have left or dismissed religion entirely towards the realm of the spiritual. To me, there is something that is being missed by both ends of this spectrum. The Celeste Experiment is an attempt to capture this.
Lastly, what is the one most important bit of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
Write your story as though you are certain no one else will ever read it. And then share it with the world.