Fatima Sharafeddine on ‘Throwing Aside Self-censorship’ When Writing YA Novel ‘Cappuccino’

Earlier this week, prolific Lebanese author Fatima Sharafeddine won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature for best book in the YA category, for her novel Cappuccino:

At the Sharjah International Book Fair, where the award is announced each year, Sharafeddine sat down to talk to one of this year’s jurors, Yasmine Motawy.

Yasmine Motawy: What was your writing process when you wrote Cappuccino?

Yasmine Motawy and Fatima Sharafeddine.

Fatima Sharafeddine: This is perhaps the book I most systematically approached. When I got the idea for it, I collected data, I researched, and I spoke to people. I also spoke to a lawyer for battered women, who introduced me to battered women, a psychologist, and those working at the Lebanese NGO KAFA, which works to eliminate violence and exploitation, particularly against women.

I began to build characters and set up chapters, writing notes on what I hoped to achieve in each chapter. In general, when I start writing, the writing takes me to places where the character needs me, and this was no different; the characters’ reactions to situations allowed me to get to know them better, and I would then go back to page 5 from page 50 and change things accordingly. It is easy to change a sequence.

YM: I was told by a YA fan of yours that, “Fatima Sharafeddine is getting better with each book; Cappuccino (2016) is better than Ghadi and Rawan (2013), which is better than Faten (2010).” What do you think of this?

FS: I think that is a very interesting and astute comment that I agree with! When I go back to my earlier works, I feel that there are parts that sound a little naive, and I feel that I may have been too direct sometimes. The topics for my first two YA novels were ones in which I was very emotionally entangled and were written when the wounds from them were still quite raw; Ghadi and Rawan is based to some extent on my son’s experiences at school and Faten touched on the issue of underage domestic labor that I felt very strongly about. They were written in passionate bursts, unlike the careful construction of Cappuccino. I did not personally know any battered women when I started writing Cappuccino, but I was disturbed by the reports of domestic violence in Lebanon, and planned my fictional take on the subject quite methodically.

YM: How did your writing process improve the outcome of Cappuccino?

FS: I felt I was ‘crafting’ the book more, I played more with language, I was not afraid to use a difficult word in the midst of an accessible paragraph. I threw aside the self-censorship that comes from excessive concerns about the reader’s age. I wrote and let the book be what it was shaping up to be, if it was going to be a YA book, so be it, if it was going to be an adult novel, then that is what it was destined to be.

YM: You do know that your depiction of a battered women’s NGO as a positive place for victims to turn to is controversial, right?

FS: Yes, I do, and I am not saying that all participants in civil society are effective and well-intentioned, but that the one I visited in particular had a very human face and did excellent work in providing these women with counsel and care. I believe that these places can be a beacon of hope for many, especially when the family is unavailable or unsupportive.

YM: Others in the industry hold you up as an example of prolific and disciplined writing (mashAllah!). Do you write every day?

FS: (laughs) Even when I am not writing, I am reading about writing. I give workshops for children and writers and have a pile of well-worn books on the craft of writing that I return to daily. I try things out, I change them, I modify workshops, I play with ideas, but every day I am thinking about writing.

Yasmine Motawy is a children’s-literature scholar, a translator, and an instructor at the American University in Cairo. She is also part of the Egyptian Board on Books for Young People (EBBY).

AlsoRead Hend Saeed’s review of Cappuccino.

On Monday, Yasmine Motawy brings us highlights from the judges’ post-prize discussion at the 2017 Sharjah International Book Fair.