A Voice for her People: Susan Abulhawa’s Writing Life interview

Susan Abulhawa is a unique voice in contemporary fiction. She’s a Palestinian, born in Kuwait to a refugee family. She spent some years in an orphanage in East Jerusalem, her ancestral city, before university education in the US and she now lives near Philadelphia. She’s the founder of a wonderful charity, Playgrounds for Palestine, which aims to bring merry-go-rounds, slides and see-saws to the children of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. As you’ll see from this interview, Susan’s writing life revolves around a leap she made at which many would balk. So that she could write her wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin, she mortgaged her house, went to a war zone, and returned with a passionate drive to write. What she wrote is a wrenching portrayal of a Palestinian family from 1948 – the foundation of Israel, which Palestinians call the “nakba,” the catastrophe – on through the civil war in Beirut and the second intifada. <em>Mornings in Jenin</em> is a bestseller whose poetic prose carries the resonance of the best Arabic fiction (writing which, due to the relative paucity of translation into English, we rarely get to enjoy; Susan wrote her novel in English). This many-faceted book has at its heart the most profound and tragic love-story imaginable. As a depiction of a violent history and of the bonds between lovers and siblings, Abulhawa’s novel gives a human voice to a people so often cast as a stereotype. How does she do it? Here’s what she has to say:
How long did it take you to get published?
It felt like forever.  There was an 8 years span from the time I started writing Mornings in Jenin until it was finally published in 2010.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
I’ve never read a book on writing.  I’m told that I should and I probably will one of these days.  When I was writing Mornings in Jenin, I did get one as a gift.  But I didn’t get beyond the first chapter.  I don’t think my hesitation had anything to do with the book’s merits though.  I just put it down when it talked about developing an outline or sketch of the story.  I knew that I would never do that – write an outline or think ahead.  So I just didn’t invest any more time in something that was going to lead me in a direction that my brain would not appreciate.  I’m not a planner by nature.  I follow my heart, usually into disasters and heartaches.  But sometimes it takes me into miracles.  Regardless, I’m just not very good at following instructions.  The book I got was more or less that, or at least that’s how I perceived it and that’s why I put it down. That said, I just read Tony Parson’s answer to this exact question and he mentioned writing at least 1000 words a day.  Apparently he got that advice from a book and I’m taking it from him.  It’s a good bit of advice and has served me well for the past few days since I read it.
I’m sure Tony will be glad to hear it. What’s a typical writing day?
I would get up at 5am, make coffee, and sit at my keyboard and write straight through until it was time to wake my daughter up for school at 8am [she was in elementary at the time; now she’s up at 6 so that timing doesn’t work as well].   Then I’d start again from 9:30 until noon.  The rest of the day I spent helping out at my daughter’s school, running or yoga, and a million other things single moms do.  
That was then, when I had mortgaged my house for its full value so I could afford not to work and concentrate on writing.  Now I’m paying off that mortgage and have to work a full time job as a medical writer, putting those biology degrees to some use.  So I write when I can.  Usually in the wee hours of the morning, in rare moments of blissful quiet and solitude, on trains, or when I’m depressed and therefore don’t care if everything else piles up.

Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.

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