Best-selling Kuwaiti Author Bothayna al-Essa on the Anti-Consumerist Attitude Needed to Write

Best-selling Kuwaiti author Bothayna al-Essa was recently part of this year’s Emirates LitFest as well as the AUK Biennial LitFest:

In the second installment of a special feature on the journeys of Arab women writers, ArabLit’s Sawad Hussain sat down with al-Essa, whose novel Maps of Wandering was one of the top sellers of 2016 at book fairs and online retailers.

Tomorrow, ArabLit will run an excerpt from Maps of Wandering, trans. Hussain.

Sawad Hussain: Music, painting, dancing are all forms of art and self-expression. Why writing?

The author speaking at this year’s Emirates LitFest. Photo credit: Sawad Hussain.

Bothayna al-Essa: I don’t think I had a say in the matter of me writing or not.  Writing is the way in which I can express myself fully. My relationship with the words is more than any other form of expression. I think it’s also a matter of how I was brought up. As a child, I studied the Quran and memorized it. There were certain public opinions that were against the other forms of expression. So writing was the only one that hadn’t been declared taboo.

Also, I like the sounds, the letters themselves. I like the strange energy that comes from fusing one letter with the next, one word with the next.

SH: What do you consider your greatest achievement as a writer?

BE: I think the life of a writer is one of continuous attempts. There is always something that we learn, something we achieve and something we fail at. But to be honest I don’t treat the act of writing with the logic of success and failure. I don’t want to see it from this perspective. For me, it’s about experimentation and making attempts, to answer questions and to pose them. That’s it. If we follow this logic, then every book hits the target that it’s meant to.

SH: What was your aim in writing I Grew Up and Forgot How to Forget?

BE: The goal of this book was to lay bare the reality of oppression, especially the oppression of women. I think in my previous works I would go in circles around this topic, but I was scared to broach it with this level of clarity and transparency. Maybe simply because we as women don’t like to portray ourselves as the perpetual victim or the oppressed female. In this novel I decided to go directly to the heart of the matter that was nagging at me.

SH: What was your family’s reaction to the book?

BE: My family isn’t really into literature. They’re more interested in business. Since the beginning, it’s not just with this book, but rarely there’s a book that my family reads the whole way through. My mom and my sister are the only ones who read my work from my household. Their feedback was really positive.

SH: You’ve established Takween, a performance space, bookshop, and a school for budding writers. What advice do you give them?

BE: I always advise them to do four things. The first thing is to read. It’s impossible to be an authentic writer without being a serious reader. Even for us to write one word, we have to have read hundreds before that.

The second thing is to interact with writing like a muscle that needs to be exercised and strengthened. One has to engage in writing exercises on a continuous basis. Even if they’re just simple exercises, they’ll keep us ‘fit’ as writers. And they’ll help us develop our tools as writers.

The third thing is that we need solitude to create. The way the world works — it’s designed such that we’re transformed into consumers, and it consumes the individual by making them into a consumer. By entering into this cycle, we lose ourselves and the true voice we hear in our heads when we experience setbacks in this world. It’s upon the writer — all of us actually, not just writers — but writers in particular to go up against this way of life.

The final thing is that we need a lot of dialogue. To hear other perspectives and opinions. I learn from reading, but certainly I learn a lot more when I discuss with someone what I’ve read.

SH: Which of your novels do you hold dearest?

BE: Maps of Wandering. I think because I matured whilst writing it, as a writer, technically, and as a person. I jumped outside of the usual concerns of a Gulf woman. The subject matter itself — there was a lot of challenge and enjoyment in it.

SH: Two of your novels are currently being looked at by different publishing houses to be translated into English. What is your opinion on the act of translation?

BE: I look at translation as a way of reaching readers that I didn’t originally intend to communicate with. Maybe they don’t belong to this region, don’t share the same issues, don’t share the same religion, but it’ll be interesting for me to see how these new readers receive my stories.

SH: What are you writing now?

BE: I’m working on a novel. But I’m yet to finish it.

SH: Is the style of the novel similar to your previous ones?

BE: The style is closer to Maps of Wandering than my other novels. It should be published later this year from the same publishing house. It delves into the current political climate in Kuwait and how this is reflected in our households and everyday lives.

SH: What are you reading at the moment?

BE: I’m reading Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Emerald Mountain. We had a shared panel where we got to know each other, and we thought it’d be a good idea to read each other’s books.

SH: Do you have a routine when you write?

BE: I have a routine when I write, but it differs from novel to novel. So for Maps of Wandering, I used to write in the mornings until nighttime. With the novel I’m working on right now, I find myself in the bookstore of Takween every morning. So because I have work in the morning, and my children to take care of when they come back from school, with homework and so on, most of the time I start writing from 8pm until midnight.

SH: How do you find the time to write? You’re a mother, you have Takween… 

BE: It’s a matter of being organized. It’s not an issue of not having enough time. Just being organized. I’ve written in worse conditions where there were more demands on my time. What really scares me is that one day I won’t be able to write. Because of this fear, I always find time, even if it’s just one hour, to write. If I don’t write, it has an impact on my life, my temperament.

SH: Do you feel relaxed when you write?

BE: It’s tiring and relaxing at the same time!

SH: When you’re done with your first draft, do you show it to anyone? If so, who?

BE: Yes, definitely, at least five people. For Maps of Wandering, I shared the drafts with a number of people. For example, I gave it to Mohammed Hassan Alwan because in the novel there are some sections from his hometown in Saudi Arabia. Some of the reviewers were my friends and others were writers whose opinion I value, whom I approached to take a look at my work.

SH: Do you end up making edits based on their recommendations?

BE: Yes of course. If it will make the book better, I am more than open to making edits.

Note: This interview took place in Arabic and was translated by Sawad Hussain.

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.