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Time of the Writer 2013: Susan Abulhawa Describes Telling Palestine’s Story in Mornings in Jenin

Susan Abulhawa

Mornings in JeninRenowned US/Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa was the focus of the first session on the Sneddon stage, Wednesday night, at Time of the Writer 2013. Political scientist Lubna Nadvi, the interviewer, asked about Abulhawa’s inspiration for writing her award-winning book, Mornings in Jenin. Initially trained as a biologist, Abulhawa said she began writing political commentary after the Second Intifada in Israel. When she heard of the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Jenin, she went to the Gaza strip and witnessed first-hand the suffering of the people there. She said this life-changing experience was the catalyst for writing her novel: “people who had lost everything, still found love for each other”.

She explained that the novel (which has been translated into 30 languages) is a piece of historical fiction, and that its aim is not altogether political. Rather, she sees it as trying to challenge the stereotype of Arabs as “crazy animals”. She said she also views it as a love story: between parents, friends, and a man and a woman.

Nadvi asked Abulhawa what she thinks the role of writers is when it comes to social justice issues. Abulhawa said said, “we are shaped by our societies, and what we write shapes our societies right back”. She said she wants to put the Palestinian story on the map, as in the past its literary tradition lay in Arabic poetry, which has been largely inaccessible to the West. She said terrorism has got Palestinian issues noticed in the West, but still “they do not control their own story”. However, Abulhawa emphasised that there is a crop of new writers and artists whose work counters the “Israeli narrative of ethnic cleansing”. She said for her, being a Palestinian writer, presenting her country’s story was “a form of resistance, enabling her to challenge dangerous and damaging myths”.

She spoke of the world’s mostly positive response to her book, saying that she even received letters from American Jews who said they had had no idea of how badly the Israelis were treating the Palestinians. Nadvi mentioned a South African band, The Mavrix, that has been inspired by Abulhawa’s book to make a music video called “Palestine is the New Black”. Watch the video here:

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Nadvi asked Abulhawa about the “Nakba”, that is the Palestinian dispossession (the 65th anniversary of being exiled from their homeland by Israel). Abulhawa said it is “the oldest script in the book: an imperialist project”. Of current Palestinian leadership, she conceded it is “all over the place: a geographic, political and psychological fragmentation”. But she said it is a national liberation struggle, and that Palestinians “have a right to live without foreign masters”. She asked South African civil society to find ways to pressurise governments/universities etc to “stop doing business with the racist state”, noting that SA currently contributes $1bn/year to the Israeli economy, a lot of which comes from the “blood diamond industry”.

Noting that 98.6% of Palestinian children suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Abulhawa said that, even should the conflict end tomorrow, “the wounds will take years to heal”. She said she found it “exasperating” that: “Palestinians are blamed for their own fate, and have to negotiate their liberties with their own oppressors”. However, she said she had noticed a “palpable shift” in the way heroic Palestinian acts have made it hard for Israel to hide atrocities against her people. “I get demoralised and depressed,” said Abulhawa, but “at times I also feel empowered and hopeful, because I do see a change in discourse. History shows us that regimes affording exclusivity to one small group of people at the expense of another group generally don’t survive”.

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Tanuki IchibanWho Fears DeathThe theme of the second session was quite different! Zinaid Meeran and Nnedi Okorafor discussed “Exploring Genre in African Literature”. The chair, journalist Melinda Ferguson, mentioned that Okorafor has won the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature for her youth fantasy book Zahrah the Windseeker, while her novel Who Fears Death, was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2011. Okorafor said that she was the first Afro-American woman to win this award, noting that the bust of HP Lovecraft she was given as a prize offended her, as he had written a poem called, “The Creation of Nigger” many years ago. She said she doesn’t worry so much about pigeon-holing her writing according to genre, even though she “knows there are lots of genre watchdogs out there”. She said to aspirant authors, “rather write what you want to write, and edit it a hundred times, and then let others tell you what genre it is”. She said she thinks of herself as her audience, “writing the mystical stories she wishes to write, hoping to please her readership, but not writing to please them”.

Zinaid Meeran said he sees genre as a “process where art is shaped to make it marketable”, and that, “diabolically, this contains an element of social control”. He said it does have a “useful element, in that it enables the artist to organise his/her ideas, but it is an imposition, nevertheless”. Zinaid said when people described him as writing for an “Indian community,” that he was “flabbergasted”, and wanted to “resist a totalitarian racial category”. He explained that in his most recent novel, Tanuki Ichiban, he has designed a new genre, that of the “riot waif”, abandoned characters who fight back. Melinda Ferguson asked Meeran whether publishers “have to be brave to publish work like yours?” Meeran said humourously that he bought the most copies of Tanuki himself. He said that recognition of his unique genre was important to him: “the feeling of tension dissipates when you meet your underground readership”.

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