author of Guapa
Other Press: In Guapa Rasa asks “Is boredom reason enough to rebel?” Do you think boredom is a good enough reason to rebel? How far do you think boredom can take a revolution?
SH: I suspect Rasa misdiagnosed his emotions here. Perhaps what he was feeling was not boredom, but a sense of hopelessness. In Arabic, the word would be ihbat, which is a feeling of being deflated and depressed. These feelings are certainly reason enough to rebel and demand something better. As to how far these feelings can take a revolution—I’m less optimistic. They are just one ingredient needed, but there are others: organizational and constituency-building tactics, a clear vision of what a better future would look like, and a clear plan of how to get there.
OP: Guapa is your first novel. What inspired you to write a novel? Why did you want to tell this story? Was it difficult to wrangle so many topics—gender identity, gay life, the life of a family, Middle East politics and American imperialism, and a very moving romance story—into one story?
SH: There are very few positive or accurate representations of the complexities of queer life in the Arab world. We are painted either as helpless victims by Western media, or as sick deviants, agents of the West, or a symptom of a decaying civilization by Arabic media. So I wanted to write something that would speak to my own experiences and the experiences of other queer Arabs around the world. And to do so I felt it was necessary to show the complexity of our experience, and how closely our struggles are linked to broader struggles of family, gender, politics, and imperialism. It was a challenge to do this and also tell a moving love story, but I knew that I owed it to myself and other queer Arabs to write the story in all its complexity.
OP: In Guapa, not only do you avoid naming the Arab country where the story takes place, you never name the event that occurs while Rasa is studying overseas. Why is this? Is there a relationship in your novel between what is named and what is unnamed?
SH: I went back and forth about whether to choose to set the story in a specific country. In the end, I liked that the ambiguity of the country mirrors Rasa’s own difficulties with labeling himself and his refusal to fit into the categories society tries to place him in. There are practical reasons as well: for the most part, queer Arabs live safely in a lively but very private social network. Revealing a country and trying to be specific about queer life in that country would expose people in a way that I felt was not ethical. So I decided that the only way to shed light on this rich subculture, but also respect the subculture’s privacy, would be to keep the setting ambiguous, and draw from different elements, both positive and negative, of the region’s queer subcultures.
OP: There’s a struggle between Rasa and his grandmother, Teta, over the legacy of their family, over what they choose to remember and how they remember it. Do you think there’s a great difference in how memory works for an individual or within the story of a family, and how it works historically, how it works for a country? As a novelist, how do you approach writing about memory?
SH: I think there are a lot of similarities between the politics of memories, myths, and storytelling in families and at the level of a country. Nation-building is very much about creating myths—embellishing certain stories and brushing under the carpet darker histories. Families operate in much the same way. In Guapa, as Rasa begins to uncover the darker elements of his country and his society, he inevitably comes across his own family’s darker secrets that he had a hand in burying.
OP: What resources would you suggest for the reader who wants to know more about gay life in the Middle East? How can one learn more without simply being complicit in an outsider’s gaze?
SH: There’s a huge diversity of queer experiences in the region, and I think anyone wanting to learn more about gay life in the Middle East needs to recognize that there is not a single gay experience. It’s also important to recognize that queer Arabs often face a dual struggle: we are not just battling homophobia and patriarchy within our own societies, but also anti-Arab and anti-Islam narratives prevalent in the Western world, which sometimes wants to use our voices to further that agenda. Recognizing this dual struggle is important for outsiders who want to better understand gay life in the region.
Some great resources (links embedded):
Sarah Harvard, “Stuck in the Media Spotlight, LGBT Muslims Often Feel Exploited”
OP: Many writers have routines and tricks to help them with their work. Do you have any writing quirks?
SH: I write in the early morning, when I’m only half-awake. That way I’m less conscious about what I put on the page. Forcing myself to write every morning, at the same time and place, makes it a ritual and a habit.