Home Page > News Item > PEN International interview series – Hanan al-Shaykh

So far in our International Women’s Day series, we have heard from Elif Shafak and Grace Mutandwa. Today – in the final interview – we speak to renowned writer Hanan al-Shaykh.














When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

My mother left us when I was five years old. I remember every time I would visit her I hid something of mine in her new home, so that the next time I visited I would assure myself that I had been there before and spent time with my mother. One day I stopped doing that, instead, I wrote my feelings and felt happy writing them. I thought; this is what I’d like to do. Write. At sixteen, I started sending articles to the newspaper. I was from a small, conservative neighbourhood and for a girl to be published was a big thing.

How have your experiences as a woman and your experiences as a writer collided?

Being a woman helped me. In Lebanon, I was rebelling against traditions, against my father and what he wanted me to be. I was rebelling against the war as well. It was a man’s war and I was writing about my experiences of war as a woman. This was not common in the Arab world.

A lot of women writers with whom we have worked have faced threats of violence or experienced violence, which is another form of censorship. How do gender roles as perceived in society impact the topics you feel you can write about and what the characters in your books can do? In other words, do you feel that gender roles can restrict writers and what they write about?

It depends on the writer, but I was never restricted. Since I was fourteen, I’ve written whatever I’ve wanted. For example, with The Story of Zahra I couldn’t find a publisher. They thought it was too explicit with rough language and rebellious politics. So I took the manuscript to a friend, who was a children’s publisher, and told her I was going to throw it out the window (in those days you didn’t have photocopies). My friend closed the window and told me, ‘We’re going to publish it, you and me.’ That’s what we did. Now, things have changed, there are many female writers from the Arab world who write about what they want.

Who was the first female character that you read that really inspired you and why?

I was inspired by Huda Sha‘rawi. I read about her life in newspapers. She was the first woman who took off her veil in Egypt. Also, my neighbour, who was a tram conductor and an avid reader, knew I loved books and gave me the first translated book from English to Arabic: Jane Eyre.

I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, she says she’s not beautiful.’ How amazing! I had never known a character in a book in Arabic to speak that way.

Does story-telling have the power to challenge social injustice?

Definitely. I wrote The Story of Zahra and Beirut Blues about the civil war in Lebanon. When you saw the news, the war was about the fighting, but you never knew how the people felt — the human experience. Literature takes you by the hand and shows you the effect of war on individuals and on humanity. Books can help us understand each other and give us courage.

What book should every girl read?

I love Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s beautifully written. Also 1001 Nights. The stories are juicy and they throb with humanity. They teach that each person in life has to have the right to live the way they want to live — and to be treated justly.