Sherin Younis on Motherhood, Dreams, and ‘A Fish in Search of Its Limbs’

Translator Enas El-Torky reads Sherin Younis’s “A Fish in Search of Its Limbs,” in Enas’s translation, and she and Younis discuss the short-story form, families and violence, and motherhood:

El-Torky brought the following discussion into English:

What do you enjoy about the short-story form, both as a reader and as a writer? 

Sherin Younes: I enjoy reading different genres of literature in general, including novels and short-stories. The idea, the narrative technique, and the writer’s command of language, are all important factors that attract me as a reader. I enjoy being immersed in the writer’s world; reading literature is like a break from the “real world” with all its complications, in spite of the complications narrated in literature, since they are “enjoyable” in the same way we enjoy watching a movie, regardless of the human tragedies it presents.

 As for writing, I chose the short-story genre because it is the closest to me, and has vast room for experimentation, whether experimenting with different ideas, or traditional and nontraditional narrative techniques, in addition to its capacity for condensation whether of ideas or language, which fascinates me, whereas novels are long-winded, and I lack that ability.

Who are some of your favorite short-story writers working in Arabic and in foreign languages? Do you remember some of the first short stories that really struck you, that stayed with you?

Sherin Younes: It’s very difficult to remember the first story that I read, but I remember being totally fascinated when the world of Yousef Idris unfolded before my eyes. I used to read his short-story collections as if it were an assignment, following his narrative techniques and character portrayal, and his intensely condensed dialogues, where every word has its weight. 

Other writers whose fictional world I extremely enjoyed include: Ahmad Alkhameesy, Azza Rashad, Ibrahim Aslan, Amr Al-Adly, Sherif Saleh, and Mohamad Al-Makhzangy.    

How do you put together a short-story collection? Do you think about how all the stories fit together?

Sherin Younes: I’ve published three short-story collections. I don’t usually set a general framework for the stories when I start writing. I just try to present ideas in a way that is not repetitive, and I research the information needed for each story. However, when I decide to publish a collection, I’m surprised to find that each has its own concerns, setting a general framework bringing it all together. I don’t know, maybe because of the concerns that have prevailed throughout each stage of my life, or the questions occupying my mind in search of answers, I think that my first collection, Waiting for Santa, was mainly concerned with discovery, like a child still taking its first steps, wanting to touch everything and discover through the use of its senses. As for the second collection, A Box Not Big Enough for Dreams, I think the idea of rebellion prevails in it, as if this child has entered adolescence with all its intensity and rebellion against society and its authorities, especially patriarchal authority. The third collection, A Fish in Search of its Limbs, is about my concerns as a mother, responsible for a daughter in a society ruled by a certain image of motherhood, and the challenges and restrictions, or ideal image that it imposes.

What is the relationship between dreams and “real” life?

In my opinion, dreams are largely a reflection of our fears, and all that is going on inside our souls and minds, including ideas, values, and relations with others and with our society. I think that doctors and psychologists have elaborated on this point, but on a personal level, with regard to the relationship between dreams and writing, dreams are a main theme of writing. Many writers have resorted to it as a method of escape from the framework of society and its values, or even the laws it imposes on its citizens, especially in periods governed by martial laws or dictatorial regimes, or even in periods of rebellion against societal values imposing restrictions on citizens. Nobody has the power to impose a limit on the madness of dreams and their ideas, and consequently nobody can judge you for that. There are writers who have produced short-story collections and novels based on that theme, including for example the amazing short-story collection by Sherif Saleh entitled The Sleeper’s Notebook. He has mentioned that he wrote down his dreams for a period of time, then worked on writing stories based on these dreams.

However, it is important for the writer to be aware that despite of the advantages of this theme and the freedom afforded by it, it can also lead him to fall in the trap of repetition since it has been used frequently. Therefore, he must use this theme in a better manner, either by choosing a distinctive method of writing, or a narrative technique comparable to the madness of dreams, and able to convey the main idea to the readers.    

How did you decide to publish A Fish in Search of its Limbs with the General Egyptian Book Organization? How easy or hard have you found it to publish short-story collections?

Unfortunately, short-story collections still face problems in publication, especially with the market fluctuations and economic crisis faced by the world in general for years now, hence most publishers direct their resources towards publishing novels or self-help books, since they sell better, or they give priority to well- known names to ensure a profit. However, despite this, there are valuable efforts in the field of government publications, concerned with publishing different genres of literature, varying between novels and short-stories and poetry for youth or for debut works. Thus, I was fortunate enough to find GEBO’s “New Writing” series, and witness the interest of those in charge in receiving the work and submitting it to the reading committee for arbitration, and working to publish it in an appropriate manner.

Does personal experience influence your writing, and what motivates the choice of your subject matter in general? 

Yes, my personal experience affects my writing, and I think it’s natural that that should happen, but it’s a mistake for the writer to remain captive to that experience. He must exert an effort to present his ideas in a manner enabling him to escape repetition and stereotyping. Personal experience might be embodied in ideas or characters surrounding us, or our readings and societal problems, consequently the writer must seek to broaden his experience so that his literary output doesn’t come out repetitive or dull. In the end, there are specifications for each literary genre, which the writer needs to adhere to, as well as the fact that the publication process has its own conditions, and if the ides or patterns are repeated that will ultimately affect the delivery of his ideas to the readers.  

There is both tenderness and violence in this story, “A Fish in Search of Its Limbs.” The family members have a fondness for each other while also slicing each other apart. Is violence part of what it means to be a family? 

Unfortunately, Yes. I always feel that there is a blatant contradiction in the family structure, particularly in our Eastern societies. Although society encourages forming a family, and sets an ideal image for it, whether through the values imposed on it or promoted by the media, yet at the same time we find that same society and media despite constantly demanding sacrifices from both the father and mother, (especially the latter), to make the family project successful, do not lend a helping hand to aid the success of this project. They give free rein to parents to impose their authority on their children, and surround them with a sacred aura, shielding them from criticism and making any reproach against them taboo.

In other words, the State does not provide a healthy system for the family; for example, there is no paternal leave so that the father can help in the case of a new baby in the family, and the entire burden lies on the mother, and government institutions do not provide sufficient nurseries or child care centers for their employees’ children. At the same time. Society gives parents complete freedom in determining their parenting approach, and there is no authority to curb the violence of the father or the mother. Therefore we see daily cases of parental violence against children, in the absence of laws preventing this.

What about your stance on motherhood, and a woman’s personal space, and their compatibility, or the conflict between them after marriage and childbirth?

As I mentioned, the nature of the society in which we live imposes an ideal image on mothers and wives, and constantly demands more sacrifices of them, without lending them a helping hand. Rather, we often hear how working mothers are mocked when they complain of their fatigue, and that if a woman wants liberation and equality, she must bear that burden and its consequences without complaints, which puts her under terrible pressure. To be fair, the father too is under pressure due to the financial responsibilities making him absent most of the time. Both parents are under the mercy of the challenges imposed by society and by parental responsibilities. Matters become worse for the wife and mother occupied with her own concerns, and having her own ambitions; she spins in an endless cycle between those personal concerns and her responsibilities as a mother.     

So is it necessary to “dispose of the head of the fish”, in order for it to be able to coexist with the family? Or can the fish retain its head, and remain a mother at the same time? Is it possible to reconcile both, or is the conflict inevitable? 

On a personal level, I think that a reconciliation is possible, but it requires a high level of awareness, and setting goals and priorities according to each stage in the life of the family, as well as choosing a husband who can understand the nature of the ongoing conflict within the head of the fish/wife, and has the ability to listen to her concerns, fears, and confusion. Reconciliation can occur when we transcend the image imposed by society upon the family; I don’t shy from telling my daughter that I’m tired, and letting her know that I can’t continue fulfilling all her demands. I also don’t shy from agreeing on boundaries for the relations between all family members, and emphasizing that each –whether parents or children- has personal boundaries to be respected by all, as well as respecting the areas that intersect, and working on increasing them, since they serve as pillars guaranteeing the survival of the family without necessarily meaning adding more restrictions on the family members.    

Sherin Younis has worked as a journalist and critic, and she has also published short stories in a variety of online sites and Egyptian newspapers. Her latest short story collection, A Fish Searching for its Limbs was published by the new writing series of the General Egyptian Book Organization in 2018.

Enas El-Torky was born in Cairo, Egypt. She has published two short story collections, Triple Woes (2014) and Dreams Pass By Here (2016). Her work was shortlisted for the ArabLit Story Prize in 2019.