By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Even before I began work on When All Else Fails (my novel, newly published by Interlink Books), I knew that I would draw on my life for certain elements of the story. But I also knew that I’d give the narrator/protagonist an identity – whether of the ascribed or the avowed variety – distinct from mine. More importantly, I wanted to thrust Hunayn into encounters I’d never had. Why hew to reality if what you’re writing isn’t an autobiography, and if your experiences aren’t particularly arresting, funny, dangerous, or emblematic of sociopolitical phenomena you wish to probe?
Well, I failed to anticipate that early readers, even seasoned literary agents and editors, would view Hunayn as me. This was imperceptive on my part; after all, the temptation to conflate the writer of a novel and its protagonist is both powerful and age-old. At any rate, I don’t want to whine about my little misadventure! Instead, I’d like to point out a few of its interesting, comical, and even instructive features.
A good example of all three is offered by people who are convinced that they’re looking out for you. Of course, this is not to say that such types always get things wrong. It’s just that sometimes they assume too much. And assumption is, as the maxim goes, “the mother of all f***ups.”
There’s the literary agent who admonishes you to call the book a memoir – but hastens to add that, due to her workload, she’d still find herself unable to take you on as a client! Her advice? Pitch that “memoir” elsewhere.
Later, after you’ve quit trying to land an agent altogether and managed to sell your manuscript to a publishing house, one of its editors takes great pains to explain that, given the obvious “lack of daylight between you and Hunayn,” making the drastic changes he has in mind will help you grow as a writer. (Rather modestly, he adds that a colleague of his is best equipped to shepherd you along as you embark on this journey of growth and self-discovery.) So much for taking at face value a writer’s earlier heads-up that his story, which you acquired as fiction, is narrated in a voice other than his own!
Another memorable aspect of my interaction with early readers consisted of an exchange that almost always provided me with a welcome opportunity to steer the conversation away from my person and toward both Hunayn’s and my involvement in a transnational trend. Often, it would begin thus: “Tell me, Rayyan, if Hunayn is Iraqi, how come he sounds so American?”
It’s a good question. After all, we’re not talking about an Iraqi American here. This is someone who’s in the U.S. for college, having been raised elsewhere.
When addressing the issue, I’d remind my interlocutor of Hunayn’s personal history, as laid out (and periodically flashed back to) in the story itself. The three schools he attended exercised arguably the most formative linguistic influence on Hunayn, who was born in Iraq but raised in the UAE, Italy, and Lebanon. All three schools (one each in Abu Dhabi, Rome, and Beirut) had English as the language of instruction. And the second two, which together accounted for most of his pre-college education, were American.
If, on top of this, your parents are fluent in English, you might well come of age speaking the language at home. That’s how it was for Hunayn. Moreover, your proficiency in English makes it more likely that, as a child and an adolescent, you will time and again reach out and grab an armful of the American movies, books, and music cassettes/CDs already orbiting you. They subsequently assemble themselves into what becomes your cultural framework.
In real life, Americans are often taken aback to discover that a guy such as Hunayn isn’t one of them. After all, many people from New York to L.A. remain unaware of the extent of their country’s cultural reach. Such insularity is not without precedent. In the mid-20th century, as the sun set on the British Empire, wave upon wave of colonials followed by ex-colonials reached Albion’s shores. Among them, in limited numbers and often drawn from the upper classes, were graduates of exclusive schools with a fastidious dedication to nurturing a particular strain of Englishness. Ordinary Britons who had never ventured beyond the metropole must have received the shock of their lives when these black and brown people let loose their Queen’s English – replete with patrician-sounding pronunciation and cadence and whatnot.
In America today, the picture admittedly emerges as rather different. To begin with, the population is multiracial; that this or that non-white person speaks in the American idiom will startle no one. The revelation that he or she hails from another country, however, is another matter. How does people’s surprise manifest itself?
Well, in the case of Hunayn, an Iraqi living in Florida when the 9/11 attacks occur, reactions vary. One character effuses, “You know, I just can’t get over the fact that you have no accent!” In a separate encounter, another character feels betrayed and lashes out in violent fashion.
And in my case? Nothing nearly as electric as an attractive woman swooning over my non-accented accent, or as scary as an apoplectic guy lunging at me. All I got was a disappointed editor – yes, the same one – griping that Hunayn’s Iraqiness falls short of authentic. To which I might in the future (I anticipate similar remarks from others) reply as follows: “Yeah, I see what you mean. In a sense, that’s true, because he’s an Iraqi at once deracinated and Americanized. … Say, are you familiar with NBR? No, not NPR, NBR, the National Book Review. Well, it happens that I wrote something for them on this very subject. How about I send you a link?”
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta. His debut novel, When All Else Fails, has just been published by Interlink Books.