Looking at the Longlist: 9 Questions with Saudi Writer Mohammad Hassan Alwan

Mohammed Hassan Alwan, a former “Beirut39” laureate, is one of the young writers (born 1979) on the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist. He made the rolls this year for The Beaverhis fourth novel, and is the only Saudi author on this year’s longlist.

Port-grArabLit: Why write? Why write fiction?

Mohammad Hassan Alwan: My desire to write has emerged gradually since my early teens.  I don’t recall making a deliberate decision to become a writer.  However, I remember very well that night in 2000 when I decided to write a novel.  After years of poetry, I felt that poems were good in declaring feelings, yet not in exploring them.  Fiction was my attempt to accomplish the latter.

AL: You have an MBA. Why business? Does your interest in math (“Statistics”), or in business, inform your fiction? 

MHA: My schooling and career path didn’t conflict with my writing, and since writing has never been considered a decent career in this part of the world, my choice of career (first IT then marketing) was based on social aspirations and genuine interests.  I can’t point at a direct link between my academic work and fiction, yet I’m sure they are linked in some mysterious way.  Many years of studying and working in a certain field do shape our thinking somehow. However, it is hard to trace that impact through my novels.

AL: You said after the IPAF nadwa that you appreciated having (serious, effective) criticism during the writing process. Is this something you will continue to incorporate in your process? Do you think it changed The Beaver, vs. your other novels?

MHA: Yes I said that and still believe in its positive effect on my writing.  Since the publication of my first novel, I have utilized every possible channel within my means to learn how my novels have been perceived by readers.  I’m available on social networks and often engaged in constructive and enjoyable conversations with my readers about my novels.  However, the NADWA was an intensive dose of constructive criticism coming from young and dedicated writers, which was very influential.  To mention one way it has effected my writing, it made me more inclined toward trying different themes and styles.

AlQondos1AL: What was the spark for The Beaver? How did it begin? Where were you when you wrote The Beaver?

MHA: I spent two years in Oregon doing my MBA.  The state’s nickname, as you know, is “The Beaver State.”  I developed an interest in this animal’s distinct human-like behavior, such as destroying forests to build his dam the same way humans treat our Mother Nature all around the world.  I kept matching human and beaver behaviors in my mind until the basic ideas of the novel started to take shape. After that, It took me the usual 24 – 36 months to finish it, juggling all school, work, and parenting at the same time.

AL: The narrator of The Beaver doesn’t like looking at himself in mirrors. Is writing fiction a sort of looking into a mirror, examining things you might not want to see?

MHA: I enjoy writing novels (as well as looking into a mirror, not narcissistically indeed!).  I would rather say that writing fiction is a sort of self-hypnosis.  I venture into my brain and made use of its memories, fears, imagination, and aspirations to wove together a novel.

AL: You said that the nadwa helped different writers see how censorship played out in different ways, in different countries. How do you deal with censorship/self-censorship as you write? Have your ideas about it changed in the last few years?

pullquote11MHA: Censorship’s worst side is that it makes writers overly self-conscious during the process of writing.  However, it is a permanent fact in writing that is not likely to go away.  If you are not being censored by the state, you are going to be censored by either social sensitivities or the audience’s expectations.  I therefore learned not to waste my time complaining about censorship and rather look at it as the playing boundaries of the field.  No player wants to be out of bounds, and such is also the case for writers.

AL: Are there writers whose work inspires you?

MHA: Many writers inspires me indeed such as: Gabriel García Márquez, Amin Malouf, Will Durant, and Naguib Mahfouz.

AL: Several different translators have brought your work into English. How do you feel reading your work in translation? What sort of translational relationship would you ideally want for The Beaver?


MHA: Translation is like one of those adrenaline adventures: scary yet fun.  Of course I would like to see my novels translated into other languages, but at the same time I have no idea how they might be perceived by readers from different cultural backgrounds and through different languages. The sort of translational relationship I prefer is the one that makes me involved in the process in order to make my ideas clear to the translator and, at the same time, observe how words and meanings change between languages.

AL: What are you working on now?

MHA: I’m contemplating a novel, yet I don’t know when should I start writing it.  This indecisiveness usually stays with me for a few months before I wake up one morning and feel like I should do nothing but write.

More on The Beaver in Arabic (reviews, reader comments, Facebook page):

On Alwan’s website

Translated excerpts and stories:

Statistics and Blonde Grass, trans. Ali Azeriah

Mukhtar, trans. William Hutchins

Oil Field, trans. Peter Clark

An excerpt from The Beaver on Banipal.


Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, Declassified


Alwan spoke with Sousan Hammad for the Beirut39 project.

In Arab Comment, he spoke about how “The IPAF Reminds Us That Arab Writing is Alive and Flourishing

Note to publishers, translators:

The Beaver is represented by RAYA agency.