Throughout the ongoing 2017 Emirates LitFest, ArabLit will be running a feature on Arab women writers and their varied journies with writing. The first of them is an interview with Emirati author Eman Al Yousuf, the young Emirates Novel Award-winning writer, who is establishing herself on the literary scene through her poignant short-story collections and novels.
By Sawad Hussain
What led you to write your recent book on Emirati women authors?
Eman Al Yousuf: I found that, either when I researched online or at the library — anywhere I went — I wouldn’t find any books that would write or talk about Emirati writers, especially women. As I am in this field, I know that we have a lot of talented writers, especially women. For example, the Emirate Novel Award that was started three years ago: Every year, the overall winner has been a woman. We have a lot of women here who write, and they write good stuff. So I wanted to have a book about them. If I couldn’t find one, I would write one about these women.
I started interviewing them, collecting information. One of my questions whenever I met any writer who had a separate career at the same time was, “How do you manage, balance, everything that is going on in your life?” Being a daughter, a mother, a grandmother — being a working woman isn’t easy. I wanted everyone to know how they cope, that’s why I wrote the book.
At the moment this book is only available in Arabic. Do you think this would be a valuable resource to have in English as well?
EY: I’m currently in discussions with the publishing house Kuttab about this. They are interested in having it translated, as a lot of people who don’t speak Arabic are curious about Arab writers, Arab women who write, what they write about, and Emirati literature in particular. All these questions are addressed in my book by the writers themselves. I also tried to have a variety of writers included. For example, I interviewed poets, playwrights, authors of children’s literature as well as literary critics…so it’s very diverse.
How did your journey with writing begin?
EY: It began with reading. I believe that any writer should be a good reader, first. When I started reading, I wasn’t thinking of writing at all. I never thought I could write. I was just a very curious kid, always asking a lot of questions. It got to a point where my parents could no longer answer my questions. After some time, they got frustrated with my constant questioning: “Please stop asking us all these questions!”
So I started looking for the answers in books. I also discovered through reading, and most of the time fell in love with the characters in the books I was reading. For example, the first classic book I read was The Count of Monte Cristo (in Arabic). I fell in love with this novel and, after finishing it, I cried for a week. I felt a great loss, and I couldn’t read any other novel because it would be cheating. Then I came to the realization that, whenever you read a good book, it stays with you forever. I then started moving on to a lot of classics, and every time I fell in love with a character, whether it be a man or a woman, they would stay with me forever and really change me. So books actually saved my life in many ways, at many stages of my life when I had problems, obstacles. I would just seclude myself and read a book.
Okay, so onto how I became I writer. I studied Chemical Engineering. I love chemistry, I love math. But they were kind of boring sometimes.
EY: Okay, so onto how I became I writer. I studied Chemical Engineering. I love chemistry, I love math. But they were kind of boring sometimes. So during the lab sessions, during the lectures, I used to imagine characters that I would see around me. I would look at one of my professors and just add some characters next to him. I’d give him a new name, a different family…it became a game. What could have happened if he didn’t do this, or didn’t do that. And then it became more than a game. It eventually turned into good writing. I started attending workshops, I became really serious about it. I found out that writing is my passion. I was born to do this. So I graduated with a Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering, worked for a while, but then left my career as an engineer and became a full-time writer. Most people told me: keep writing as a hobby and continue as an engineer. But I decided no, writing is what makes me happy and what I was born to do.
How would you mentor young women writers today? What advice would you give them?
EY: First of all, read, a lot. When reading, don’t stress yourself out thinking, I have to imitate this author’s writing, or that I’m reading to write. Just read for the sake of reading. If the book isn’t good, don’t finish it. A lot of people say, “try to finish it,” but I have a 25% rule. I read a quarter of the book and if by then I’m still not hooked, then I won’t continue. But I will give every book a chance, even if it’s a new writer, their first book, unknown — they’ll have a chance with me.
It’s like any other practice, doctors keep studying, keep updating their knowledge, so writers should do so as well.
After reading, participate in lot of workshops. Never stop improving your craft. Even if you have published two or three books. It’s like any other practice, doctors keep studying, keep updating their knowledge, so writers should do so as well.
When writing, write like no one is ever going to read your work. Make sure to proofread your work and have a number of drafts. Some writers think they have it the first time round, but you’ll get a better outcome the second or third time.
Do you ever share your drafts with a close friend or family member?
EY: First, when I started writing, for my first and second book, I used to only show my drafts to my mom. She’s the best critic: She was straightforward and brutally honest with me. Although she doesn’t have the experience of being a writer…it’s good because she’s like any average reader. Now, though, I have a number of people who write that I know and trust. People whose writing I admire, and whose opinion I value. So yes, for my fourth and fifth books, I did share the drafts with about five or six people — and I knew they’d be honest with me.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
EY: I have a collection of short stories that will be published very soon. The title is Baydh ‘Uyun, Sunny Side Up. I’m also working on a short film script and am already in talks with the director. We’ll start filming in a couple of weeks. It’s all about three generations of Emirati women, each at a different key stage of life: one in her 20s, one in her 40s, and one in her 70s. There is a thread that connects them all — the obstacles that they face. I really hope people will like the story. We hope inshallah it will be shown in the Dubai Film Festival at the end of this year.
Lastly, do you think you would be a different writer if you were a man?
EY: Yes, definitely. I mean what makes up the majority of a writer are the experiences that he’s had, the way he’s been raised, and how people look at him. All of these are different for women than they are for men.
Again, a lot of male writers have written about women or have written from female points of view in their books, and they do so really well. But I think a woman can do it better.
From the day you are born, people treat you as a girl. They dress you in pink. From the moment you open your eyes, people treat you differently according to the stereotypes they hold true — stereotypes about the female gender. Certain things are expected from you. I believe that no man has experienced what a woman has. Therefore yes, I would be a different writer. Again, a lot of male writers have written about women or have written from female points of view in their books, and they do so really well. But I think a woman can do it better.
Sawad Hussain is a Cambridge-based editor-at-large for ArabLit who is also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature.