On Reading in Saudi Arabia and Diversity

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A quick disclaimer, this article is actually not what the title claims it to be. It’s more about becoming a writer in Saudi Arabia, and that has so much to do with my  reading journey. (Maybe I will do a post on what being a reader in Saudi Arabia is like – it’s a subject I’m fascinated by.)

As a young reader and (aspiring) writer in Saudi Arabia, I went through the same phases Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie experienced in her childhood and youth. In my personal journey, I began by reading about the little adventures of innocent Peter and Jane (Jane and Peter..), then came inspired afternoons lying sprawled in my parent’s living room, flipping through the heavy Encyclopaedias. My mother travelled to India when I was a child of 7 or 7, and my khala sent back packages filled with colouring books, puzzle books and story books that I cherished. Also around age 7 I solved crimes with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and my dreams were regularly haunted by the monsters of R.L. Stine. As I neared my first decade on Earth, I was having a whirlwind literary romance with the works of Agatha Christie. That same year my friends who lived on the ground floor of the apartment building gave me an illustrated copy of Thumbelina. I spent many afternoons reading her story and looking at her sitting on the petal of a flower.

In these few years of reading, at some point I knew I wanted to write stories too. It was easy for me to slip into the world beyond words, where gatekeepers were periods and commas.

By the age of eight, I knew there were thick novels that my sister would hide from my Mom, usually stowed away behind the heap of clothes in her wardrobe. These were scary love stories by my beloved R.L. Stine and other innocent romances that are a natural part of the adolescent years, but being a child of the East, my mom did not think it appropriate for her to read books about young boys and girls falling in love. I never read those books, but I liked my awareness of their hidden existence. Books, even unread ones, were a constant source of comfort to me, and a source of warmth. Even though they’d likely get my sister in trouble (and they did at times) if my mom discovered them.

I believe I was nine when I wrote my first proper short story. I’m disappointed in myself at that, I wish I’d written as early as four or five, it’s a personal grudge I hold against myself because some part of me thinks people born to become storytellers start very young (I was chatty as a child, so maybe it counts to some extent). But, I drift..I wrote a story (suspiciously a lot like the works of Stine) and it was terrible, completely unrealistic, although some will argue that that is what you’d expect from an alien story. But alien stories, though implausible, are nuanced with everyday realities reflected in the people that are running away from the creatures, and sometimes in the creatures themselves. My characters were all white with blue/green eyes and foreign names. They had names I never encountered on the playground or in the supermarket where I went with my parents, but names that were constantly haunting the pages of the books I read, my sister read and my mother kept on a shelf in her room. As I began to write, it became a childhood of regurgitating those foreign names, foreign ideas and experiences I’d never actually had or witnessed, experiences that couldn’t really be justified in my social existence and perimeter. These alien ideas flowed through whatever form of art I dabbled in. I even had a school sketchbook filled with drawings of homes with front lawns and sloping roofs – all things that were complete fiction in the world of apartment buildings and concrete lawns in which I lived.

It’s been years since then, and it took me at least another decade until I realised that my story had to have names like Ayesha, Hadeel and Salwa. Ahmed, Faisal and Mohammed. I realized I couldn’t survive as a writer by becoming a copycat, a fake, an imposter. And by imitating foreignness, I was denouncing my own reality and silencing the real story around me and inside me. When you’re a kid of the third world or a child in the Gulf, you are most likely to go through the same process. We don’t grow up reading books about people like us, because all we have access to are stories about Peters and Janes and Alices. The fiction that is reflective of our Eastern realities have only recently started making it to print. And yet, English fiction set in Jeddah (the city where I live) is almost non-existent, and about expats in Jeddah even more so. So, as a reader and writer growing up in the Gulf, you have to eventually learn that your stories and your life are valid enough for fiction, that it doesn’t matter that you’re never going to prom and there will never be a boy on the football team that you cheer for in a short skirt, pompoms waving around your wrist. Our existence runs differently, and it runs free. You have to learn that it’s okay to write about the smell of bakhoor when you enter the house, the feeling when you first learn to pray, the moment at 14 when you may have suddenly felt overwhelmed by the severity of sin and the boundless space for forgiveness waiting for you. You have to learn that your experience with religion, the highs and lows of your faith, are natural experiences of life that deserve to be reflected through your characters. You have to learn that it’s actually a beautiful thing to write about and experience. And of course, there is teenage love and there are dances, but not the way we read about them. I do recall several fictional characters I fell in love with at fifteen, and many nightly dance sessions I had with my sister. There’s nothing abnormal about not having a first date or a first kiss at fifteen, it’s not an essential for life to be valid and good. It is life, it’s just different.

As a writer in Saudi Arabia, you have to go through the process of accepting the simple fact that your stories don’t work the same way. Your YA can’t end with two teens driving off into the sunset with a pause for a kiss at the red light, it might, however, involve (laughable) internet romances (probably the only kind in Saudi Arabia) and realisations that you’re too young and might as well focus on family and friendships and enjoy life while in your youth. All great things. As youth, our focus shifts from the pursuit of The One to possibilities of being a responsible member of the community or even a loving sister or brother to your siblings (also, we have a lot of siblings so don’t feel pressured to ascribe just one or two for your character).

There are so many things I don’t realise about writing because I’ve never had a real conversation with an editor or a reader of my own work (which doesn’t really leave the bounds of my personal space). But I do know that I was writing all wrong for a long time, my first novel Mist Ago (written at 15) is proof of that. My mom is fond of it, but I hate it dearly, the way you would hate your first ex. I hate that even at 15 I was naive enough to name my characters all wrong.

But, if I do say so myself, there was one nuance of storytelling my story got right. The relationships were real and the friction between the mothers and daughters in the story were reflections of my own experiences and the experiences of my friends. Which only goes to show that despite what we look like, the life source of our relationships are the same emotions and feelings.

Which brings me to the thing I want to actually say. My experience of being too exposed to fiction by mostly white authors has shaped my understanding of my own writing. They’re just as important to me, as a writer, reader and a human, as the stories of POCs and the LGBTQ+. I firmly believe that stories about white people is a part of diverse fiction, because they are part of the diversity we fight for and the diversity we want everyone to accept in the world. The point of diversity is not to create this exclusive list of books that are about brown people or queers, it’s about being inclusive of everyone. And that, surprise surprise, includes white people. I think the talk on diversity in fiction has become tiring at this point. It’s 2017 and we are still debating on what makes the cut and what doesn’t?

Acceptance doesn’t result from the creation of an exclusive club. Maybe people won’t like me saying all this, but that’s okay with me. Instead of exclusively reading books by POCs or books about black issues, read everything in fine balance. Because if you seek out ‘diverse fiction’ you essentially treat it like a genre you can reach for when you feel you need a dose of political correctness. I don’t mean to offend anyone who likes to look for diverse books to read, but my point is to not make it an exclusive reading list that makes you feel like you’re part of a movement.

It should be a part of what you’re already reading. You need to let it seep into your shelf and mix with white mainstream writers. If your bookshelf has a separate shelf for diverse fiction, what’s the point of fighting for diversity? You’ve done a good job at separating it.

Diversity is inclusive of every skin colour, every kind of language, every kind of story. The point is to be together, as books and as people. It’s about developing a kinship with people unlike yourself, and championing (authentic) stories that represent who you are.

Before I offer my dramatic conclusion, I want to acknowledge that I am aware of the fact that white writers, specifically white male writers, are dominating the publishing industry and they have more voice than anyone else. But, if you read everything in fine balance, you will be reading them as much as you’ll read anything by anyone else. Fighting for diversity doesn’t mean we undermine the value of literary works by white people. We have to acknowledge that everyone deserves to tell their story.

So in conclusion.. as a writer and reader, my goal is to nurture my experience with literature. I want that when I read, I learn and treat every book like I’m studying it and studying what the writer is trying to say and what kind of experiences they come from. With this process at hand, I want to read everything.

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15 thoughts on “On Reading in Saudi Arabia and Diversity

  1. This is a brilliant article. Absolutely genius! I agree to what you said. Things aren’t same for us and what most ya authors write. We don’t go to proms, our parents don’t let us hang out with our boyfriends in our house , most of the time they don’t even accept of them. We have never had out first kiss or date at 15 and we don’t lose our virginity by 16. Things work differently for us. We can’t move in with our boyfriend and drop out of school/college. That isn’t the way things happen here. We need to pass school and college with good grades and then look for job and there’s a lot of struggle. Things are a lot lot different in this part of the world. But that’s alright 🙂

  2. This quote alone was outstanding: “If your bookshelf has a separate shelf for diverse fiction, what’s the point of fighting for diversity? You’ve done a good job at separating it.”

    SO ACCURATE AND SO GOOD. Read everything, read widely, and read smartly. You absolutely hit the nail on the head. ❤

  3. I absolutely agree about the bit about diversity. I guess it is good to be conscious about not only reading white male authors, but there’s something to be said about reading whatever attracts us and reading organically.

  4. Such a thought provoking post! I’m equally guilty of writing about the people you mention. Back in 7th grade, my English teacher became tired of reading about those blue eyed Emilys and Amandas, mostly because no one in the class actually shared their names. She forbade us from writing about these people again and I remember disliking her for it. (I mean, come on. Emily is a prettier name than Ayesha.) It seems so silly now because we really needed that advice.

    Have you ever come across a Sumaiyya in literature? The only time I came across a Ayesha was in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and I did a mental happy dance.

    Once again, brilliant post.

  5. Thank you Ayesha! I’ve come across too many teachers who are ill-equipped to guide students who want to become writers. Hope you’ll write more and grow ❤ I have yet to find a Sumaiyya in books.

  6. I think it never hurts to know who the authors of the books we’re reading are. If we want to promote female writers, then so be it! It’s a wonderful thing to support. Great post!

  7. “Our existence runs differently, and it runs free”

    last month, I understood this, yet I found myself unable to understand it last week. I don’t know, something is funny about this line.

    1. I think what I meant was our life is different and it’s not governed by the same rules. But we’re free – as people and individuals – in the framework that does govern our lives. I guess it means you’ll always find normalcy in all kinds of situations. There’s normalcy in Saudi Arabia, there’s freedom too – but within the country’s framework. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not normal. Hope that helps!

  8. I wanted to laugh at that part about writing in Saudi Arabia and how people here, teenagers, let’s say, may have no idea what you’ll be writing about. 🙂
    The culture in which we were raised can either be made a weakness or strength and you have chosen it to be your strength. 🙂 Keep writing. We need more writers here. 😊

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