ArabLit contributor Mona Elnamoury reflects on what Kate Chopin would’ve gained from the International Prize for Arabic Fiction-sponsored “nadwas,” or writers’ retreats, and what a modern Arab “Kate Chopin” needs to write and publish.
I have always thought of her amidst her six children, trying to write on a wooden board in the kitchen. With servants and perhaps slaves in the house, a mother of six was surely busy-minded enough to think of writing as a miraculous activity; even servants needed guidance. However, 19th century American writer Kate Chopin produced surprisingly fresh and genuine fiction that has recently been rediscovered and widely studied. Chopin’s busy married life and her active social life in the small town Cloutierville surely provided her with rich material for her work but it must have also eaten up much of the energy and time that would otherwise have been directed to more reading, writing and editing. With her husband’s death leaving her a plantation and a store deeply in debt, Chopin’s cares and burdens definitely increased.
One should not be deceived by what some of the biographies say about her widowed flirtatious life and come to the conclusion that the lady was simply gathering all the writing material she needed to start a controversial writing career. Her life seemed to be a continuous struggle towards finding a harmony between her inner life and her outward existence. Again, she still needed a great time for reflection, friction and literary exchange, the latter was perhaps almost impossible to get except through letters. Nadwa, the creative writing workshop funded by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was probably what Chopin needed most.
What could a fiery talent do alone? How would it survive the bitter critical standards and the natural reluctance of publishers to publish for women? I can imagine that hundreds of ideas must have flown through theLouisianaair before Chopin had time to reflect on them, not to say record them, and I can imagine the many stories that she never wrote influenced by the social censorship or restricted by the limits of time. I know as a fact that she destroyed the manuscript of a novel and that the condemnation of her most daring novel The Awakening overwhelmed her with final silence till her death.
Is there a better place for Chopin to go to than a writing workshop like the IPAF’s Nadwa? The Nadwa would give her a short seclusion away from the kids, but not too long lest things should go wrong back home, providing her with a chance to meet other promising aspiring writers, bestowing on her a blessing of close touch with new experiences of foreign countries and people, and finally committing her to ten days of serious creative outpouring away from distractions of any nature: financial, maternal, social or even sexual. But Nadwa was nowhere near creation when Chopin needed it!
How is the situation with a modern Middle Eastern Kate Chopin? Mmmm! Let us play a bit now. Perhaps she would have a smaller number of children, no servants, and a full-time job. She would have most of the modern communication tools, and supposedly more recognized freedom. The faster wider communication tools would provide her with the friction she needs at a distance but in return for that she would be overwhelmed with the unbelievably enormous number of daily updated sites to visit, groups interact with, events to attend and thousands of works and articles to read. How would she do that with the responsibility of the kids, house and work? The husband? If she is still married, the husband at best will be helpful up to a certain point where her work does not contradict his own work and career. At worst, he would oppose anything she does that will not lead to his and his kids’ welfare. In between, he might morally support her but would leave her to face her own challenges unassisted. But of course this is an over-simplification. A modern Middle Eastern Kate Chopin would face many social and religious limits that would lead her even faster to the same area of silence to which Kate Chopin was pushed to after The Awakening. And she would not easily learn how to defy those limits or learn smarter ways of expressing the underlying tensions that impatiently wait to be expressed.
Publishing? It is easier to publish on her own if she can afford it but more difficult to be recognized if she does not have enough and continuous relations with the market of writers and critics, which would again mean being around downtown a great deal and attending most of the seminars, events and cultural activities which she will surely try to do. I imagine her at the end of the day excited but dead tired and overwhelmed with all the effort she had to exert to keep going as a mother, worker, and creative writer. Before she goes to bed, she would perhaps take a handful the muscle-relaxant, anti- acidity pills, tranquilizers and painkillers.
Her writing capacity? Surely many ideas would fly into theCairoair before she has time to reflect or record them. Doesn’t she need the Nadwa providing her with enough space and time away from her family, work, the nerve-breaking life she is leading? But not too long to allow things to go wrong back home. Getting in close touch with other writers in a secluded fancy area will do wonders to the quality of her work and surely the ready publishing chances will let her creative flow run softly.
Wouldn’t it be worthy to release more female voices out there? Wouldn’t it be heroic to set them free from their kitchen boards or desktops and fly them like singing birds in the sky? For ten days? A week? A couple of days? If there are two things that will linger in your minds after reading this piece, they will be to read Kate Chopin and call for more writing workshops like the IPAF Nadwa.
Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.