“Stories don’t belong in our heads, hidden away from the world”, says Alwia Al-Hassan, who relies on her heritage and imagination to create works of fiction. Hikaayat caught up with this talented author to discuss writing, motherhood and the creative process.
HIKAAYAT: First of all, congratulations on the publication of your latest work – a children’s book called Shems and the Magic Seabream. What inspired you to write this book?
Thank you very much! Well, there were a couple of personal and career-related reasons behind the creation of Shems. I’ve been trying to break into the publishing industry since 2014. I was initially interested in traditional publishing only, but after following a few indie authors I started to consider self-publishing as a viable option. The traditional publishing industry moves at a painfully slow pace and I reached a point where I just wanted to see my work finally out there. My husband encouraged me to consider writing and publishing a picture book in Arabic because there’s a huge demand for this currently in the Middle East. So Shems was actually supposed to be an Arabic-English bilingual book. But I ended up scrapping that idea.
In terms of content, I grew up with Saudi Arabian oral folk tales. I always felt a responsibility to spread the stories of my grandparents’ culture to the Western world. My family comes from a small coastal town in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It’s an area I love but the world knows nothing about and so, I wanted to shed some light on that region. I actually have around 10 thousand words of research for a historical novel set in my family’s hometown. Shems was just the beginning of a wider interest I have in writing about Saudi culture.
HIKAAYAT: You are currently pitching your debut novel The Tressians to publishers. The novel is set in a futuristic supremacist community where freedom is granted to one half of the population only. Why is dystopian fiction so important?
I think imagining worst-case scenarios help us evaluate ourselves as a community. When I explain the premise of The Tressians, people tend to find the whole thing quite outlandish and funny. It seems ridiculous to imagine a world where people are enslaved simply for having a different hair type. But in reality, looking at the history of slavery, it’s not farfetched at all. As soon as we place meaning and importance on superficial things, the potential to be judgmental and cruel is there. Dystopian scenarios remind us of the human potential to be evil.
That being said, I’ve been told that The Tressians, despite its dark premise, doesn’t read like a dystopian novel. This is because dystopian fiction as a genre has developed its own conventions, tone and style- especially in Young Adult fiction. So I tend to avoid that label now, in favour of the wider term ‘speculative.’
HIKAAYAT: You have both a blog and active social media accounts. As a writer how do you avoid getting swallowed by social media and actually focus on your writing?
The truth is, being on social media doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve struggled with my accounts over the years. I began blogging as a way of promoting my writing. I guess you could say my social media accounts exist for my writing and not independent of it. So I’ve never had an issue with focusing on my writing. In fact, my real struggle is staying on top of my blogging and social media presence. Plus, being a mother is the real distraction in my life. I try to balance housework and mothering with my writing by setting daily and monthly goals, staying organised and squeezing writing whenever it’s possible. But in the end of the day, these things differ with each individual. I’m quite a self-motivated person and procrastination actually stresses me out.
HIKAAYAT: You describe yourself as “conservative in practice, liberal in thought”. Tell us a bit more and what value, if any, these kinds of labels have.
This is an interesting question. I don’t think all labels have a universal value, but they can be useful in certain contexts. Muslims are labeled all the time and I don’t think we can ever escape this even if we choose to reject all labels. So I personally like to take control of the narrative by labeling myself and setting people’s expectations of me. Ostensibly, I am a conservative Muslim woman in the sense that I’m practicing and look and behave in more ‘traditional’ manner. The way I look and behave can sometimes give people the impression that I also ascribe to traditional religious and cultural values. But this is far from the truth. My academic background in philosophy has made me comfortable with critiquing cultural and religious institutions. So I have certain opinions that people from the Muslim community may find scandalous or progressive depending on who you’re talking to. I like to call those opinions ‘liberal’.
HIKAAYAT: What advice do you have for aspiring artists, writers and creatives?
Don’t go down the creative path unless you absolutely love it and have the motivation and dedication to push on despite the strain these career paths can have on your mental health and life in general. But if you do choose to do this, expect failure and heartache and rejection. You will never avoid this reality. But what you can do is develop your craft and this is only possible (in the context of writing) if you read a lot of fiction and technical writing books and of course write and write and write.
5 Fast Questions:
- What are you currently reading?
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. So far, absolutely loving it.
- Coffee or tea when writing?
Tea – plain with no sugar or with evaporated milk and stevia.
- E-book or physical book?
People will kill me for this, but e-book. I don’t have space in my handbag or apartment for hundreds of chunky books. My kindle is my best friend.
- Do you ever dream of your characters?
Not yet. But I do have some crazy dreams, so you never know. I do daydream a lot about them though.
- Which book is so good, you wish you had written it?
This is so difficult but I think Blindness by Jose Saramago. Honestly, go read it. It’s incredible!
Shems and the Magic Seabream is available here!
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