Susan Abulhawa: ‘As human beings, we are composed of stories’

Palestinian-American novelist, essayist and poet Susan Abulhawa talks about growing up in a US ghetto, her passion for writing, Arab identity and the need to nurture a reading culture in the Arab world 

I believe as human beings, we are composed of stories, as societies are stories that link us to each other, to our earth, our past and our destinies. Committing these pieces of us to words becomes an anchor of sorts in life and is a great privilege.

Our region has been in tremendous turmoil since oil was discovered and keeping whole societies in subservient tension or actual chaos became colonial objectives. It’s hard to find public libraries in nations where the greatest libraries once existed. Malls and the infrastructure of consumerism replaced cultural and community spaces. Then, and most importantly, it requires the freedom to speak and write without fear and censorship. 

The Arabic speaking world is made of many cultures, with distinct pasts, clothing, stories, dialects, foods, and art. Arabic is a rich and poetic language and we’ve never had a shortage of talented writers but what has been lacking is the social support necessary for this talent to flourish.

Societal and governmental investment in reading programmes and reading infrastructure is needed to encourage the region's youth to read more in Arabic. People in high reading societies have endless programmes and libraries that cater to children in order to foster reading culture. Nurturing a reading culture is not a great scientific puzzle.  

I grew up partly in a US ghetto, partly in Kuwait, and partly in Jerusalem. My experience was that I unfortunately had very little access to books growing up and frankly did not read a full book until I was nine years old. It was an Arabic translation of Pippi Longstocking.

Nowadays, the themes that inspire me are exile, love, motherhood, outrage, history and the glory of being alive. I love dense novels that are packed with time, people, and place. I’m reading now a book titled Beauty is a Wound by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan. I like this sort of genre. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is perhaps my favorite novel. I’m a great fan of Mahmoud Darwish. I like the works of a wonderful Palestinian writer named Huzama Habayeb. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is also one of my favorites. Really, too many to name. Literature is such a vast and fabulous landscape.

Where the future of Arabic literature is concerned, I see the institutionalisation of reading culture beginning in primary schools, financial support of emerging writers and emphasis on Arabic language in literature, not merely “qawa’ed” as it was when I was a student.