Mariam Qahtani on the Slow Process of Building ‘On Love and Isolation’

Mariam Qahtani’s “Heavensent Hurriya” originally appeared in the FOLK issue of ArabLit Quarterly. It is republished here as part of our celebration of the publication of Qahtani’s short-story collection, On Love and Isolation. Here, Qahtani talks about the process of putting together the collection, the women it’s built around, and her ideal reader.

A conversation with Ali Al-Jamri

Let’s begin with the title – On Love and Isolation – when did it occur to you, and how does it speak to the collection and its themes?

Mariam Qahtani: The idea of a short story collection is certainly not new. That is why I published in the past sparingly, because I remained far-sighted with the objective of writing a book. As for themes, they sort of presented themselves to me. After examining each story, I noticed that the love theme and the isolation (or alienation) theme were common denominators between the stories. Some people thought the word “solitude” is the most appropriate translation of العزلة  but that is not how I see it. Solitude can be voluntary where isolation and alienation are not. Alienation or isolation are often an inevitable and paradoxical experience where love is concerned. 

This certainly sounds like a Covid-era title. Is it meant to evoke this association?

MQ: I guess it will resonate with some people in that way. Love and isolation are timeless themes in the human experience.

I had the pleasure of reading an earlier version of the collection in 2021 when we translated the short story Huriyya for ALQ’s FOLK issue. At the time, the collection had the working-title Fil-Tariq ila Sana’a (On the Road to Sana’a). How did the collection develop from there and become On Love and Isolation?

MQ: On the Road to Sana’a was a catchy title that didn’t really capture the essence of the collection.

Following from that, how do you approach writing a collection of stories? do you know what sorts of stories you want in it, and sometimes find you’ve written one that doesn’t fit? Is it important that the works speak to each other?

MQ: It really depends on how the writer wants to approach the book and the impression they want to leave in the heart and mind of the reader. For me, solidifying themes were important to ground the reader in the stories and justify their composition and arrangement.

These stories were written at different points in time over the last decade or more. I continued to revise them through the years. In the last couple of years, I wrote more stories that included the war theme. The idea of adding all these stories in a book was a long-lived dream for me, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what the final product would look like. I thought: If I start compiling the stories that I have written, the book will crystalize. And so, during the compilation, I noticed recurring themes. Love and isolation were a common experience among the characters. Stories that didn’t contain these two themes were left out.

Each short story presents a character study of a woman who live within the dual oppressions of both war and patriarchal society. How are the different women presented over the course of the collection?

MQ: All characters are subject to oppressive environmental and psychological factors and entangled in complex relationship dynamics. Women are presented authentically with no agenda in mind other than illuminating their existence and the way they live. Each story will resonate with readers differently. 

Following from that, how do you relate to the different women in the collection? Are there characters you feel closer to than others? Who do you love, hate, admire or get annoyed by?

MQ: My stories are my daughters. They may not be perfect, but I love them all equally. There is a bit of me in each character, for sure. The one I feel closest to is perhaps Nouria, because she is harder to understand, and this amplifies her isolation. 

Who are some short-story writers you admire, and why?

MQ: I love many short stories of various authors who are not strictly short-story writers. However, I do admire writers like Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, and H.P. Lovecraft to name a few. There is something profoundly human about their characters.

Who do you consider your core audience or community, and what has been their reception so far?

MQ: I have what I like to call an “ideal” reader. I write for that reader. I wouldn’t be able to lift a pen if I had to think of every type of reader. My Yemeni community’s reception has been positive thus far and I am grateful for that. I do hope my Yemeni readers find something heart-warming in this book.

How would you describe the “ideal reader”?

MQ: The text does not come to life without the reader’s involvement and interpretation of meaning. My Ideal Reader understands their role as an active agent within the text. They do not expect a perfect performance from the writer. They are open, interactive, curious, and imaginative. They can fill gaps, find symbols, and appreciate the context. They are interested in the characters’ psychological make-up and want to understand, not judge, them. My ideal reader does not need all the details. In fact, they don’t want all the details. 

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Also read:

On Mariam Qahtani’s ‘On Love and Isolation

New Short Fiction: Qahtani’s ‘Heavensent Hurriya’

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Mariam Qahtani grew up in Sanaa, Yemen, and immigrated to the US in the 90s. She holds a BSc in Psychology from Capella University in Minnesota and is currently an Emerging Scholar and master’s candidate in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.  She lives near Washington, D.C., with her family.

Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini poet, translator and editor based in the UK. In 2021, he edited Between Two Islands (No Disclaimers), an anthology of British-Bahraini poetry. His work has been published in Modern Poetry in Translation, Consilience, Zindabad, Bahr Magazine, and anthologies, and it has featured at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. He curated the Manchester Poetry Library’s Arabic Language Collection in 2021. He is a New Writing North Arabic Translation mentee and his current work focuses on the translation of Eastern Arabia’s vernacular poetry. He is @ali_mn_aljamri on Twitter and @alialjamri_scribbles on Instagram, and his work can be found on his website, alialjamri.com.

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