By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write to try to make sense of the world, and to understand burning questions that I struggle to answer. So my writing is an attempt to think through and grapple with complex questions about life, love, politics and society.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I most recently published Guapa through Speaking Tiger. Many people initially see the book as a novel about gay life in the Middle East, but I wrote the book with broader questions in mind: how do we tackle our different and sometimes conflicting identities, both personally and politically? How do we fight through legitimate personal and political fears and catastrophes to create positive change in the world? Why are some identities considered “deviant” in society, and how can such so-called “deviants” find a place for themselves in their families and societies? In writing Guapa, I wasn’t trying to make any point, I was simply thinking through these questions through the lives of my characters and the political and personal problems they were grappling with.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I’m not a fan of flowery prose, and much prefer writing that is stripped down and simple, but conveys complex issues. I enjoy writing characters and dialogue quite a bit, so I find that my writing tends to primarily focus on the inner struggles within characters and the relationships between them. I also love black humour, which is probably why many people tell me that Guapa is, despite its darkness, a very funny book.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have so many; it’s difficult to name them all, and I inevitably forget someone. Writing Guapa, I found Waguih Ghali, Colm Toibin and James Baldwin to be huge influences, as well as the writings and stories of Arab activists during the 2011 revolutions: Lina Sinjab, Omar Robert-Hamilton, and Atiaf Alwazir, among others.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Every piece presents its own challenges. Some of my stories have been sitting in the drawer for nearly a decade as I haven’t yet “cracked” them, so to speak. My current writing project feels incredibly challenging: I’m trying to write about a family over the span of a number of generations, and trying to keep it true to the historical time period is difficult and requires a lot of research. Trying to find the balance between historical accuracy and authentic writing is a daily struggle.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Being with my partner and my greyhound, with a large pile of books by my side. Or, being at home with my parents and eating my mother’s cooking, which is a wonderful mix of our backgrounds: Iraqi, German, Palestinian and Lebanese.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I’ve been so angry about the political developments across the world in 2016, so much so that this year I feel a sense of despair and hopelessness that can be quite crippling. Although I believe with those who say that we need to maintain a sense of outrage as global events increasingly become more bizarre than a television show, I am also increasingly careful to make sure that my exposure to news does not come at the expense of my own mental well-being.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I’d rather take three empty journals with me, and use the precious solitude to think through my own stories.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My father, being the good Palestinian he is, has a briefcase that he keeps in his cupboard which has passports, family and wedding certificates, and other important documents. I’ve developed the same practice, so I’ll grab that briefcase and run.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
For my political philosophy, I always fall back on a quote by Foucault: “‘My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.’ As for my personal life philosophy, I prefer the simple phrase “This too shall pass.” There’s a sense of comfort in reminding oneself of the inevitability that all things, good or bad, will come to an end.
Saleem Haddad is a writer and aid worker. He was born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, and has lived in Jordan, Cyprus, Canada and the U.K. He has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and other international organisations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt. In addition to writing, he currently advises international organisations on humanitarian and development issues in the Middle East and North Africa. He divides his time between the Middle East and London, where he lives with his partner and their greyhound, Jack.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab