Why Arab Readers Need Sci Fi: 5 Questions with SF Author Noura Noman

Noura Noman’s debut science fiction novel, Ajwan, was just released this past week at the Sharjah International Book Fair at a packed event.

Noman signing books at her launch.

ArabLit: Where did you get the inspiration to write Ajwan? Why science fiction?

Noura Noman: Well science fiction because ever since Star Wars in 1977, I have been addicted to it. Between the age of 14 and 27, sci fi and fantasy were the only books I read. They say you should write what you know, and SF I what I knew. I also firmly believe that the lack of SF in the Arab world has contributed to less interest in the sciences in general. There is hardly any research and development in the Arab region and I think if there was more SF there’d be more interest in R&D. And lastly, my hidden secret behind writing SF is that, I have very few competitors and it is always so exciting to write in a new genre and sort of break ground if you will.

Crowding up for a signed copy.

AL: What did you learn about writing, and science fiction, as you constructed the novel?

NN: That’s really interesting; I learned a LOT. I learned that my Arabic was not up to par – but I knew that already, just didn’t know how bad I was. I learned that having read zero Arabic literature over the past 30 years was going to make writing physically painful, as I struggled with sentence structure and phrases. And since whatever little of Arabic SF was available out there, I had little to no frame of reference as to how a plot would look, or how technical topics were tackled in literature. I had this idea in my head, and I needed to pour it onto paper as fast as I could before it disappeared for good. Therefore, I think I may have created my own way of doing things; but was heavily influenced by Anglo-American style.

AL: Do you think science fiction could (should, will?) have a wider Arabic-reading audience? What will help grow the audience for Arabic sci fi?

More signing.

NN: From the response I have had on twitter, and from the handful of young writers who said they read it in English and were interested to read it in Arabic and write it to, yes, I think this is the time for Arabic SF. What I believe would make it more popular is to avoid using it as a way to “fix” Arab issues. I also feel that we need to break away from the boundary of planet Earth and write about other planets, other life forms. I think that’s what will get the young generation to become interested in it. They are sick and tired of our age old issues which we never succeeded in conveying to them in a way that would make them hope for a better future.

A poster from the event.

NN: I’ve loved Arthur C Clarke, Alan Dean Foster, Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, C. J. Cherryh and many more. I haven not had the chance to read Arabic sci fi, although I have recently acquired 3 stories by Nehad Sharif (Egypt’s most famous SF author). I do remember reading pocket sized novels published in Egypt called الشياطين الثلاثة عشر. If I am not mistaken some aspects of those stories contained SF themes. I could e mistaken, it was the late 70s. Every “good” book I have ever read has inspired me in one way or another – whether SF, Fantasy or otherwise. There were times when a very small sub plot in a novel had intrigued me enough that I would create a story in my head around it – even though the author had used it only as a by the way in order to give a bit of background about a 2 dimensional secondary character which will never appear again.

The author.

AL: A new UAE publishing survey noted there is still not a great desire to read among Emirati youth. What would you do to improve the relationship between books & their potential Emirati/Arab readers? How to get books into the hands (devices, whatever) of more young readers? And to get young people more excited about them?

NN: It’s funny you mentioned that, one of my 4 daughters is the hardest to convince when it comes to reading. She’s fifteen and she prefers TV to reading. Imagine my surprise a year ago when I noticed her spending long periods of time staring at her ipod, When I asked what she was doing, she said she was reading stories. Stories, I asked, what do you mean? She showed me discussion forums where teens wrote short stories or episodes and shared them with each other. They were written mostly in the vernacular. I was stunned! So the way to their hearts is through simple Arabic shared on their mobile devices. That is one obvious way, the other is through required reading added to the syllabus. But unless we know what genre they prefer we still we get them to read. They associate Arabic with school text books, and considering the haphazard way text books are created and recreated, our kids have lost all respect for Arabic. My way of getting them excited enough to deign to read Arabic is through Sci fi.