Best-selling and boundary-challenging Kuwaiti novelist Bothayna al-Essa gave a commencement speech at Kuwait University this spring. In it, she spoke about her personal journey with literature and how she found her voice:
By Bothayna al-Essa
Translated by M Lynx Qualey
Life is unpredictable. When I was asked to give this commencement speech, I smiled. Perhaps my life hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but let me begin at the beginning.
I was a bookworm, so naturally it wasn’t hard for me to get excellent grades. When you get excellent grades, the system classifies you. And suddenly, the world is separated into two groups: the Department of Science and Mathematics, for those with excellent grades, and the Department of Arts and Humanities, for those who don’t want to make much of an effort. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us then. Hard sciences were inexplicably “superior” to the human sciences. Math was the master of all knowledge, and literature and philosophy were for those who didn’t earn a place in the other colleges.
And I was a bookworm: not just hungry for novels and stories, but for textbooks, too. From my first to final encounter with my supervisor in high school—from the moment she’d looked at my “excellent” grades—she decided that I must study science or mathematics. At the time, I thought: Who am I to challenge the system? The system has my best interests at heart. I must be good at science and math, even if my heart throbs with joy from the phrasings in Arabic class, or when tasting a new word in English, or even in French. Even if I loved that astounding human invention they call language, I had been classified. I was in the Department of the Sciences, with those fortunates on whom the future of humanity depended.
When I’d finished high school, it seemed only logical that someone like me should study medicine. Since this was what everyone expected from me, who was I to let them down? When teachers, family members, and friends all told me that I was a future doctor, who was I to question what everyone else could see? I decided to study medicine, in the beginning, to avoid the public humiliation of a lesser specialty like linguistics, psychology, philosophy, or—God forbid—literature and literary theory. I could see their heads shaking when I imagined what would happen if I, God forbid, gave up their rosy dreams about my life. My life. Who am I in the end? The important thing is society, and society had already decided that I would be a doctor. Their dreams lay heavily on me, because these were the dreams of the many. I did not discover my dreams until later.
In med school, things were well-suited to a book worm. My grades were either excellent or very good. But in English class, I had a panic attack as we read about the nomenclature of the finger joints, and I learned the names of each. I wondered if I had to memorize, from that day, the names of my knuckles. No problem, I could memorize them easily, but then, if I did, then we’d go on to the names of the bones, cartilage, glands, and hormones… When would I read something I loved? The idea that I couldn’t read novels broke my heart.
I disrupted class that day. My English teacher, Professor Huber, asked me to take a walk, since I was creating a disturbance. Suddenly, I’d become the troublemaker in the classroom. When I stepped out of the room, I breathed a sigh of relief, and I realized I’d been suffocating for a while. But I said to myself: Get ahold of yourself! You have to find the will to keep going. You’re not the type who surrenders. You belong here, everyone says so.
I decided to rediscover my motivation. Back then, I didn’t know that I was trying to borrow the motivations of others, to continue on the path they’d set out for me. The only idea that seemed reasonable, at the time, was to visit the morgue and sit among the bodies, so I could find within me the voice that called out for me to save humanity from disease. And so there I was…sitting among the bodies that had been purchased from Eastern Europe, the bodies of the poor, their families having been forced to sell them to med schools for a few dollars. There was a woman’s body, and it seemed to me that she would’ve been very beautiful when she was alive. She had thin hands with long, soft fingers. I looked at her carefully, wondering: Why don’t I feel I’m in the right place, as everyone says I am?
I left the morgue. In truth, I was thrown out. The anatomy professor arrived with a group of fourth-years and asked if I were a student in his class. When I answered that I wasn’t, he shouted, “Get out of here!” And I did. I left the morgue, the med school, and the fate they’d decided for me.
And while I’d forever abandoned the dreams and aspirations the community had for me, I still didn’t know what to do. And to be honest, I was ashamed at the idea of people saying I’d switched from studying medicine to studying literature. That would be a true defeat from the point of view of the system, and, those days, I was still suffering from the illness of caring about what others might think.
I chose to study business administration, as it seemed to me the middle ground between the world of science and the world of literature. It was a place that was respected and acceptable, which was something I needed in those days of vulnerability and fear. And one secret reason, that I’ve never told anyone, is that I could sit in the last row of class and read the novels I love, while at the same time maintaining excellent grades. I studied business administration, read novels in secret, and kept my head above water.
Even in those days, my literary self was a source of shame. It was something I didn’t want to announce, even though it was clearly apparent, even in passing discussions. It appeared in my language, lexicological choices, and narrative ideas. Everyone knows when they’re in the presence of someone who reads. It was an identity that had long been denied.
I received my bachelor’s degree in finance. I went on to do my MBA, because being a government functionary would force me to play solitaire for six hours a day, in addition to what you’d already know about gossip and small conversations that went nowhere. This was nothing like books, where each line took you somewhere, but… Then reality tightened its grip on me.
I felt my heart tense every time I pressed a finger to the machine where we signed in and out. For eight years, I did things I didn’t like: management reports, committees and teams, liquidity analyses, asset ratios, surpluses and deficits, shifting from a cash-basis system of accounting to an accrual system. I knew these things, and knew them well, but I didn’t like them. It took me sixteen years to acknowledge what I wanted to do with my life: to read and write literature. No more, no less.
I resigned from my job. I grew Takween: It’s become a bookshop, a publishing house, and a platform for dialogue. I spend all the hours of my day among the books. I read books, write books, talk about books, and sell books. Sixteen years later, I got the job of my dreams, but I think it all began on the day that teacher kicked me out of class, and I sat among those bodies in the morgue.
That day, for the first time, I decided to listen to my inner voice and to say no to the dictates of others, no matter how sweetly and lovingly given.
And here I am today, here…at a graduation ceremony, and am I supposed to give you advice? The idea itself is amusing, or perhaps more than that, frightening. Who am I to tell you what to do, and what am I to say? So Darwish said. I’ve lived a life of trials, a series of struggles between right and wrong, until I was able to find that voice, that voice I haven’t lost since that day. It gets clearer every day. It’s a voice I will never lose, because it’s the only compass I have. It tells me constantly: who I am, what I’m supposed to do.
So if there’s any advice I can give you, it’s this: find this voice, and never let it go. Science, literature, business administration, philosophy, art, and cooking are all invaluable manifestations of human knowledge, and what we really need, at a time like this, is for each of us to find a place we love. Everything we say about productivity, change, reform, fighting corruption, and saving the world is impossible without that voice.
Our destinies unfold, or are determined, as much by our courage in doing what we love as in being what we love.
Congratulations on your graduation. The real adventure has just begun…and I wish you all a wonderful journey.
Buthaina al-Essa is the founder of the Takween platform, publishing house, and bookshop. She is author of more than a dozen books, the most recent of which was Everything. She’s won two State Encouragement Awards and been longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
M Lynx Qualey is founding editor of ArabLit.