March 21, 2013
I didn’t expect to be doing this. I thought when I finished my last post on 31 December 2012, that would be it – I would close the door on A Year of Reading the World and venture off to pastures new.
Then a few things happened. Firstly, after I finished the adventure, nearly 1,500 more of you signed up to follow the blog and it seemed a shame not to say ‘hello’ – hi, great to have your company.
And secondly, UK writer Rebecca Wait, whose novel The View on the Way Down comes out next month (preorder it now why dontcha?), invited me to take part in ‘My Next Big Thing’. It’s an internet meme apparently (sounds very grand), which is passed from writer to writer allowing each to talk about his or her next project.
The idea is that I answer the questions and then tag three more writers to do the same on their sites at the end. It struck me that this might be a nice way to connect you with three of the writers whose work I enjoyed reading last year, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Bear with me.
What is the title of your next book?
The title of my next (and first) book is Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf.
The title of my next blog, which you can get your hands on much sooner, is If Women Ruled (hence the picture at the top). I’d love it if you’d join me for that adventure – any ideas much appreciated!
Where did the idea for the book come from?
About four months into A Year of Reading the World, I wrote an article about the project for the Guardian newspaper (I was working there at the time so I managed to collar the literary editor and convince her to let me do it). Interest started to pick up off the back of that and I began to wonder if the story of the project and the stories behind the stories that I read might make a book.
Then a friend, writer Rosie Fiore (her latest novel Wonder Women came out on ebook last week), introduced me to my now-agent, Caroline Hardman at Hardman & Swainson. Caroline thought the project would make a book too, so we put together some sample chapters and a proposal, and Reading the World was born.
What genre does your book fall under?
Technically speaking, it’s a narrative non-fiction blook (a blog that’s turned into a book). It’s part memoir and part literary criticism.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Gosh. Well, in my daydreams Kate Winslet would play me, but in reality – particularly when the going gets tough – Woody Allen is probably nearer the mark.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The story of my quest to read a book from every country in the world in 2012.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s being published by UK publisher Harvill Secker (part of Random House) thanks to my agent Caroline Hardman.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three months.
What other books of the same genre would you compare yours with?
Tricky. I’d like to think it’s a bit Bill Brysony and others have compared the style to Elif Batuman and Anne Fadiman.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was very lucky to have a publishing deal and a deadline – wonderful for focusing the mind!
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It contains an account of my extraordinary meeting with the ex-lover of my Swiss author, Aglaja Veteranyi, and the story of how Honduran writer Guillermo Yuscarán (formerly William Lewis) got his name.
When and how will it be published?
Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.
And here are my tags for three of the writers whose work I read last year:
Giovanna Rivero is a Bolivian writer. She has published numerous books in Spanish and took part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2004. I was lucky to be introduced to her work by leading Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán and read her 2006 short story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood for A Year of Reading the World. She’ll be talking about her Next Big Thing on her blog.
Ak Welsapar is a Turkmen poet, journalist and novelist. He represented Turkmenistan in London’s Poetry Parnassus event in 2012. He writes in Russian, Turkmen and Swedish and his novel Cobra is due out in English soon. I was delighted to be able to read an unpublished manuscript of a translation of one of his other novels, The Tale of Aypi, which he emailed to me.
Danderma is a prolific Kuwaiti blogger and novelist. She has drawn considerable attention in the region for her self-published series, The Chronicles of Dathra: A Dowdy Girl from Kuwait. The books are written in a mixture of English and Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – and Danderma was kind enough to send me the first volumes so that I could tuck into one for A Year of Reading the World.
December 19, 2012
Hearing that I was struggling to find a Kuwaiti book that I could read in English, Fleur Montanaro, administrator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, asked a contact for advice. Word came back that no prominent Kuwaiti authors had had anything more than the odd short story translated into English. However, there was one young writer called Haitham Boodai whose novels were available in translation. In fact, there was a picture of them on sale in the Avenues branch of Kuwait’s That Al Salasil bookshop on the iLSuL6ana blog.
Delighted with this news, I set about trying to get hold of a copy… and drew a blank. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not find a Boodai novel that I could purchase. I even called up That Al Salasil, only to be told that they did not have the books in stock. Queries to other big English-language booksellers in the Gulf region produced similar results. It seemed as though the books had never existed.
Beginning to wonder if I was going mad, I emailed iLSuL6ana and another local blogger Mark. Perhaps whoever took the picture might be able to shed some light on the mystery? But time went by and no response came back. It seemed to be a lost cause.
It was time for plan B. This came in the shape of three less-than-ideal options. Exhibit A was Pearling in the Arabian Gulf by Saif Marzooq al-Shamlan. Though it was by a Kuwaiti writer and billed itself as a ‘memoir’ in its subtitle, the 1970s book was really more of a social history and – judging by its sober cover – a dreary one at that. Next up was Women in Kuwait by Kuwaiti sociologist Haya al-Mughni. This sounded more interesting, but it was a bit of a leap to call it a story given that it was really a series of essays.
Last in the line-up of dubious contenders was Invasion Kuwait by Jehan S Rajab. This first-person account of the 1990 Iraqi invasion sounded like the front-runner, but there was a problem: although Rajab had lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years when she wrote the book (more than qualifying it to be considered as Kuwaiti literature under the terms of this project) the subtitle of the memoir was ’An English Woman’s Tale’. Could I really justify reading a book described in such a way for Kuwait?
Unconvinced, I put off reading any of the three for as long as I could. But at last, the desperate day arrived and so, with a heavy heart, I picked up the ‘English Woman’s Tale’ and started making my way to the sofa to begin reading it. En route, however, I decided to check my email. And there, in my inbox, was a message from Mark.
It turned out Mark had been away in Japan, hence the slow reply. He didn’t have anything to say on the subject of the mysterious Haitham Boodai books, but he recommended contacting Kuwaiti writer and blogger Danderma, who he was sure would be able to help.
I fired off an email and Danderma replied swiftly: she had two self-published novels titled The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, volumes I and II. If I gave her my address, she would send them to me.
And so it was that, with a handful of weeks left in the year, two colourful books bearing cover illustrations by Fatima F Al-Othman dropped through my letterbox. I picked up volume I and got stuck in.
The novel presents the tribulations of Dathra, an obese 32-year-old misfit in the midst of Kuwaiti high society. Scorned by her svelte relatives and obliged to watch the man she loves marry her cousin, Dathra (a word that means ‘dowdy’) vows to change her life for the better. But as her enormous appetite and relentless desire for junk food lead her into more and more extreme fixes, it seems as though her biggest enemy may be herself.
When it comes to writing about food, Danderma is in a league of her own. From obsessing over tastes and textures, through to the deceptions used to cover up each binge, the writer captures the mindset and emotions of an addict perfectly. Her depictions of Dathra’s cravings are so convincing, in fact, that she even made me hanker after a Big Mac at one point – something I never thought I’d feel!
The insights she provides into Kuwaiti society are equally compelling. Expressed in an arch, witty tone, her evocation of the rich Avenues shopping district where you can stand for hours watching people in the Pinkberry queue and the lavish parties that fill the social calendar make for enjoyable and revealing reading. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – which features heavily in the book.
Having self-published her novels because of the difficulty of finding an English-language publisher in Kuwait, Danderma warned me that the first volume contained quite a few errors (these made her decide to hire an editor to help her prepare the second volume). While this is true, these rarely get in the way of the sense and flow of the text.
In fact the development of the plot and Dathra’s character are likely to be bigger issues for many readers. Although her vulnerability and self-deprecation make her likeable throughout much of the book, Dathra has moments of extreme selfishness and greed that can make her hard to sympathise with. In addition, while Danderma’s desire to make her heroine triumph over the superficial standards of the world around her and maintain her individuality is understandable, there is a problem with the fact that Dathra doesn’t change or learn much over the course of the narrative (the final scene introduces a slight shift in perspective, but it feels rather hasty and incidental). Despite nearly eating herself to death at one point, the heroine never really addresses her unsustainable addiction to food.
This does not stop the book being enjoyable, however. Witty, surprising and daring, the novel flies the flag for underdogs everywhere, with plenty of laughs along the way. Bridget Jones fans looking for a change of scene might find a new friend here.
The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait (volume I), by Danderma, illustrated by Fatima F Al-Othman (2011)