Novelist Raja Alem on Why She’s ‘Shocked’ to Be Called a Female Saudi Writer

The Italian Book Club interviewed novelist Raja Alem at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where Alem received the 2014  LiBeraturpreis for her novel The Dove’s Necklace:

9780715645864The LiBeraturpreis is the only German literature prize that is “awarded exclusively to women from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab World,” and Alem took it for the German translation of her International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel, Das Halsband der Tauben (The Dove’s Necklace). The novel will be out in English translation by Adam Talib and Katherine Halls in April 2015.

The Italian Book Club — which is based in Rome and London — interviewed Alem about this novel, about Mecca, and about what it’s like to be a female Saudi novelist.

Alem talked about growing up in Mecca, an international destination of a very specific sort. She describes the river of people who come to Mecca each year on hajj: “So this is what obsessed me. This river of human beings, regardless of their languages, of their races. So I’m trying to capture that in my book.”

But the book, she said, doesn’t have a plot:

“You asked me about the story of my book. There is no real story. It’s like the city of Mecca is possessing me. And it’s talking through me. Really. When I touch the keyboard…I feel as if I am back to some cosmopolitan library, and there are sounds channelled through me. I write in a kind of trance.”

Alem said she is trying to convey this “river” of humanity, which she likened to the hundreds of thousands who come to the Frankfurt Book Fair. “This is the river I’m talking about.”

But there’s no “story” in her novel. For example, she said to her interviewer, “Look inside your head. What you browse this morning, the emails you received, the instagram photos you watched, the sounds of the people around you. This is what I’m trying to capture in my book. Moments.”

“For me,” Alem said, “a moment is like a home. You go in this small home and you discover. You touch everywhere. You pop up out from everywhere. You bang every door. I want to discover.”

Alem described what she was trying to achieve with her writing as “a strong current:” “So in the beginning, the reader cannot enter this, they get a shock. They get frightened. Then when they get into the stream, they are swept away.”

The interviewer asked her about the position of women in the KSA, and how things had changed for her as a Saudi woman writer, and Alem put a hand to her chest. “When you say ‘a woman, a Saudi writer,’ I am shocked. Because I don’t belong to anybody. I belong to the books I write. To this free flow of thinking, of energy.”

Alem said she continues to write: “Every day I wake up, and when I wake up, I write. For me writing is like an act of breathing. It’s my yoga. And I never looked back. I never thought of censorship, of who will read the book, who will approve it, who will not. And I just move ahead, flow ahead.”

Although certainly, for many writers with more straightforward books, censorship is a live issue.

Watch the interview: